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VP Harris Kicked Off Trip In Guatemala By Discussing Migrant Surge

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Vice President Kamala Harris told Guatemala's president today that the two need to work together to bring hope to his fellow citizens so that they don't leave and migrate to the U.S. Harris is in Guatemala City on her first foreign trip as vice president. President Biden put her in charge of one of the toughest jobs facing his administration - that is curbing the surge of migrants at the U.S. border. The two leaders held a press conference this afternoon. And we're joined now by NPR's Carrie Kahn, who is in Mexico City, where Harris arrives tonight.

Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: Hi. All right. So today in the press conference, Harris said that the talks were, quote, "friendly yet frank," which kind of suggests the talks were a little rough. This is, after all, a really touchy subject for both countries. Did you learn any more about how things went exactly?

KAHN: Well, from the press conference, it sounded like Harris did lay out that combating corruption is now the big focus of the Biden administration in this region. They believe that corruption erodes democracy, people's chances and opportunities, especially economic ones, and that's what's forcing them to leave their homes. Harris says both she and Giammattei were blunt since she said we don't have time to gloss over concerns. She also was tough in speaking directly to migrants thinking of coming to the U.S. now.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.

KAHN: But along with just saying don't come, Harris also outlined plans for joint tasks force and other measures to help Guatemala combat migrant trafficking and strengthen its prosecutorial muscle in fighting international crime, gangs and corruption.

CHANG: And why do you think Harris chose Guatemala as her first stop on this trip?

KAHN: Well, out of the three Central American countries that are the biggest senders of migrants to the U.S., Guatemala is seen as the least problematic in terms of its leaders. In El Salvador, President Bukele has been hostile to U.S. overtures. The Honduran president has been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a major drug trafficking case in New York, so he's very problematic. Giammattei has not been in office that long in Guatemala and does talk a lot about cracking down on corruption. And I just want to say, despite, you know, the pomp and the public aggrandizing, it was impressive to see such a high-level U.S. official on stage with the president of Guatemala talking first and foremost about corruption. That - it's symbolic, sure. But it does send a strong message that this is the U.S. agenda now.

CHANG: And how much do you think Giammattei is really ready to fight corruption in his country?

KAHN: He says he is. He was asked twice by U.S. reporters, though, if he himself is not part of the problem in Guatemala. He got defensive. And when he finally answered, he said that not all politicians are corrupt. And he, since coming to office, has created more transparency and respect for an independent judiciary. Protesters outside the press conference had signs saying he's lying to you, VP Harris.

CHANG: Well, the next stop for Harris is Mexico. Do you expect issues like creating economic opportunity and cracking down on corruption - that those issues will receive similar attention there?

KAHN: Sure. She will hold a one-on-one talk with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador here. He's a different partner. Mexico is a bigger country, bigger economy. It's also dealing with a migration issue as more and more Central Americans are staying in Mexico. Lopez Obrador's foreign policy agenda has always been attacking the root causes of migration. And his national agenda, which was what swept him into power and actually helped him win - make some big wins in yesterday's midterm election here - is his anti-corruption fighting persona. So he's - his party lost some ground in the Congress yesterday, but made some big gains in statehouses across the country. So he's really going to be in a good mood when he meets with Harris tomorrow.

CHANG: That is NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City.

Thank you, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.