Portillo Villeda said that telling migrants not to come fails to take into account the historical involvement by the U.S. government and multinational corporations in Central America, sometimes creating hardships that spurred mass migrations.
“Experts will tell you there’s no way to stop human migration,” she said. “You can’t just tell people don’t come. That’s just not effective.”
Portillo Villeda said it was a safe choice for Harris to deliver the comments from Guatemala. Harris might have faced harsher critiques in El Salvador or Honduras, Portillo Villeda said, whose presidents are not as friendly with the new U.S. administration.
She said Harris’ statements reminded her of President Theodore Roosevelt’s coercive and paternalistic foreign policy approach to Latin America.
“How do you show up to Guatemala and tell Central Americans how to behave?” she said.
The uproar underlines the formidable diplomatic task that President Biden handed Harris when he made her his highest-profile point person on immigration policy.
Since entering the White House, the Biden administration has labored to reassure supporters that it would gradually review, and probably reverse, Trump’s harshest measures, while managing a seasonal surge of arrivals at the border earlier this year, including large numbers of unaccompanied children.
Yet Harris’ message wasn’t primarily directed at fellow Democrats and left-leaning activists, nor was it meant for thousands of desperate Central Americans fleeing poverty, violence, ecological degradation and corruption, who probably will ignore it anyway, said Roberto Suro, a public policy professor at USC who has studied immigration for decades.
Rather, some analysts suggested, Harris was signaling to moderates and other U.S. voters that the administration has the southern border under control, and pushing back against Republicans and conservative pundits who’ve taken to railing about an ongoing immigration “crisis.”
“The audience for that message is in the U.S., people here who are on the fence on immigration. People who see the arrivals at the border as a sign of chaos, loss of sovereignty or a broken system,” Suro said. “For people across the political spectrum who are not happy with the way the U.S. has been managing the border.”