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Politics

Vice President Harris To Make First Foreign Trip

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The job of vice president of the United States includes two tasks. One is to preside over the Senate and occasionally vote to break ties. The other is whatever assignment the president gives. The agenda for Kamala Harris includes a very long-term problem. President Biden wants her to address the root causes that have led to mass migration toward the United States from Latin America. She starts for Guatemala this weekend then goes on to Mexico. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith will be traveling along. Hi there, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

INSKEEP: What is the scale of the problem that Harris wants to address?

KEITH: It is a very serious, very large problem. We've talked on this show before about the record number of people, largely from Central America, trying to come to the U.S. through the Mexico border. If you look at polling, this is a political red flag for President Biden. A lot of people don't approve of the job that he's doing when it comes to immigration. So as you say, Biden asked Harris to take on this problem, though not all of it. Right from the start, the White House was firm trying to draw this distinction between border issues, which are not part of her portfolio, and addressing the root causes of migration, which is her portfolio. So Harris is focusing on the major challenges that are pushing people to make this perilous journey, which she says will not be fixed overnight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: We have the capacity to give people hope - and hope in particular in this case that if they stay, that help is on the way.

KEITH: This was Harris speaking at the White House last week, encouraging businesses to invest in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. These are countries that have been hit by natural disasters and have problems with violence, corruption and poverty that go back decades. The pandemic has only made matters worse. But many of the themes are familiar. Six years ago, then-Vice President Biden was in Guatemala talking about some of the very same root causes of migration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Let me be frank. Some in my own government and in the U.S. Congress have asked me, quote, "How do we know this isn't just going to be business as usual?" How is this any different than anything that's come before? Well, the president and I believe that this is the time that it will be different.

KEITH: But it wasn't different.

CECILIA MUNOZ: It's really clear. We have a refugee crisis in our hemisphere.

KEITH: Cecilia Munoz was a top aide to former President Barack Obama at the time he gave his vice president this very same portfolio. She says it's telling that President Biden is running this same play now.

MUNOZ: None of this is easy. All of it is important. And it's important to send a signal. We understand we can't fix this at the border. And we understand what it means to be a regional leader and a global leader.

KEITH: Harris has already announced some funding to help with food shortages and disaster recovery. But a question looming over Harris' trip is how to make sure this time really is different. Mazin Alfaqih is a senior adviser to Harris.

MAZIN ALFAQIH: We are taking a very critical eye at the programs that have and have not been successful and looking to scale up ones that have been. We're also looking to broaden partnerships, understanding that the U.S. government and foreign assistance alone cannot tackle this problem.

KEITH: But Harris needs willing partners. Jose Cardenas served in the George W. Bush administration.

JOSE CARDENAS: The problem, year after year, is that entrenched interests in these countries are not interested in economic reform. And yes, they will tell American officials - they'll tell the Yankees everything that they want to hear. But when the Yankees leave, it's back to business as usual.

KEITH: And while the work Harris is undertaking could yield long-term improvements, Cardenas says there's an immediate political crisis. He says the Biden administration's softer approach to border enforcement is likely drawing migrants to try to make it. Harris will not be visiting the border on this trip, underscoring that she sees her role as working with people in Central America and Mexico.

BENJAMIN GEDAN: The president knew just what kind of buzzsaw he was sending (laughter) his vice president into when he gave her this assignment.

KEITH: Benjamin Gedan worked on Obama's National Security Council. He says Harris has an impossible assignment because there's an expectation that she should somehow be able to deliver immediate results. Republicans have already keyed in on this. Gedan says getting longer-term results may be just as hard.

GEDAN: The longer-term project is much harder because it's to give hope in this region that you can have decent governance and transparent government and less corruption and - so that there will be real solutions to violence and poverty and the lack of economic opportunity.

KEITH: Corruption is going to be a major topic on this trip, and a lot of this is a continuation of the work Biden tried to do as vice president, work that went by the wayside during the Trump years, which were all about enforcement. But unless the deeper problems are fixed, it's hard to convince companies to invest. And without investments, jobs are limited, and people look to America.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to our colleague Tamara Keith, who will be traveling with the vice president next week. And Tamara, I think these countries are also looking to America for vaccines, aren't they?

KEITH: Yes, for the COVID-19 vaccines. And yesterday, Harris called the two presidents who she'll be meeting with on this trip, Mexico's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala. She called them separately to tell them the good news. They're getting vaccines. They're getting a portion of the doses that the administration is sending out this month. Vaccines will also be going to Honduras, El Salvador and other Latin American countries. You know, the Biden administration has taken a lot of criticism for being slow to share vaccines with the world, but now the U.S. is throwing itself into vaccine-sharing and is trying to galvanize the leads - the world's leading economies to get behind this push.

INSKEEP: Is the U.S. doing enough, though?

KEITH: Global health advocates tell me that much more will be needed. And the White House says they do plan to share many more doses when they come online. They have something like half a billion more doses on order than they actually need to vaccinate every American. Part of what's going on in Latin America is China and Russia were really quick to send in doses of their vaccines, often with strings attached. And now the U.S. is trying to come in a little bit later - and Harris certainly will deliver this message on her trip - and say the U.S. is now here to help its neighbors.

INSKEEP: Tamara, thanks for your insights, and safe travels to you.

KEITH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tamara Keith, who will be traveling with the vice president next week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.