Harris discusses migrant surge with Mexico president

Vice President Kamala Harris and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador arrive at the National Palace for talks
Vice President Kamala Harris and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador arrive at the National Palace for talks JIM WATSON AFP
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Mexico City (AFP)

US Vice President Kamala Harris held talks with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador Tuesday during a visit to the region aimed at tackling the "root causes" of a surge in migrant arrivals.

The two leaders witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding between their countries on cooperation in aid and development in Central America.

"We're going to talk about the issue of migration, but dealing with the causes," Lopez Obrador told reporters before they entered their closed-door meeting at the National Palace.

Harris, on her first trip abroad as President Joe Biden's deputy, has said she wants to give Central Americans "a sense of hope" that their lives will improve in their countries.

Detentions of undocumented migrants, including unaccompanied minors, along the US-Mexico border hit a 15-year high in April, with nearly 180,000 people intercepted, according to the US authorities.

"There's not going to be a quick fix," Harris said in an interview with NBC News broadcast on Tuesday.

"We're not going to see an immediate return. But we're going to see progress," she said, speaking in Guatemala the previous day during the first leg on her two country tour.

Asked why she had not visited the US-Mexican border personally since taking office, Harris said her focus was on dealing with the reasons behind the migrant flows.

"It is my firm belief that if we care about what's happening at the border, we better care about the root causes and address them. And so that's what I'm doing," she said.

- 'Options, alternatives' -

Biden's special envoy Ricardo Zuniga told reporters that the memorandum of understanding between the two countries would have a "real focus on youth and reforestation."

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Lopez Obrador has proposed expanding one of his domestic welfare programs in Central America, named Sembrando Vida, which provides economic grants to registered agricultural producers.

"Nobody leaves their towns, abandons their families and leaves their customs for pleasure," he told reporters ahead of the talks with Harris.

"Things are not solved with coercive measures. You have to give options, alternatives."

Harris's visit is part of the Biden administration's promise of a more humane immigration policy -- in contrast to the hardline approach taken by his predecessor Donald Trump.

Biden is allowing unaccompanied children to stay and be united with relatives living inside the United States, while urging undocumented migrants not to come.

"The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders... If you come to our border, you will be turned back," Harris said in Guatemala on Monday.

The Republican opposition has accused Biden of creating a "crisis" on the country's southern border by failing to rein in migration.

One issue that may come up in the talks in Mexico is calls to end "Title 42," a Trump-era coronavirus policy allowing the immediate deportation of undocumented migrants -- even those who arrive seeking asylum.

Trump sparked anger during his 2016 election campaign when he branded Mexican migrants "rapists" and drug dealers, and vowed to build a wall across the southern US border as part of his hardline immigration stance.

Biden's administration is expected to seek a "positive, constructive relationship" with Lopez Obrador, said Duncan Wood, a Mexico expert at the Wilson Center think tank.

"Down the road, if we get to a point where the migration situation is less of a crisis, then we may see more pressure from Washington on Mexico City on a whole range of issues," he said in a panel discussion.

But "we're not going to see any repetition of the past four years of the Trump administration with aggressive public statements and threats," he added.