U.S. and Mexico fly Haitian migrants away from border as pressure builds on Biden

By Daina Beth Solomon

CIUDAD ACUNA, Mexico (Reuters) – Mexico and the United States were on Wednesday preparing to fly more Haitian migrants away from chaotic U.S.-Mexico border camps, as pressure mounted on U.S. President Joe Biden to stop expulsions of Haitians to their poor, disaster-hit homeland.

U.S. authorities have deported more than 500 Haitians since Sunday from a camp housing thousands of mostly Haitian migrants on the U.S. side of border, by the small Texan city of Del Rio.

Such deportation flights back to Haiti would continue, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said.

At the same time, Mexico has begun flying migrants away from the U.S. border, as well as sending some by bus, towards its border with Guatemala in the south.

U.S. politicians have criticized Biden’s handling of the situation with some opponents calling it a “disaster.”

U.S. authorities have ordered an investigation into an incident in which mounted U.S. border agents used their reins like whips to intimidate migrants trying to cross the Rio Grande border river.

Photographs of the incident sparked anger and the Biden administration said the agents had been pulled from front-line duties.

The deportations came amid profound instability in the Caribbean nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, where a presidential assassination, rising gang violence and a major earthquake have spread chaos in recent weeks.

Filippo Grandi, the head of the U.N refugee agency, has warned that U.S. expulsions to such a volatile situation might violate international law.

Hundreds of the migrants have also gathered on the Mexican side by Ciudad Acuna, across from Del Rio. The migrants crossed back over the Rio Grande, to retreat from the U.S. camp because of shortages of food and poor conditions there.

On Tuesday, after talks with Haitian government representatives, Mexico said repatriation flights would be offered to those “who wish to return to their country”.

‘IT’S DIFFICULT’

While reports abound of Haitians across Latin America heading towards the United States, some are having second thoughts.

In Ciudad Acuna, Haitian migrant Maurival Makenson, 31, said his older sister was making her way to the border from Colombia but he was trying to persuade her to turn back.

“I tell her it’s difficult to get papers, there’s deportation,” he said.

Some of the deported Haitian migrants on Tuesday reacted angrily as they stepped off flights in Port-au-Prince after spending thousands of dollars on arduous voyages from the troubled Caribbean nation via South America hoping for a better life in the United States.

Some 130 people have traveled on Mexican flights to the southern Mexican city of Villahermosa, and another 130 people to the city of Tapachula on the Guatemala border, a Mexican government official said.

On Tuesday evening, officers from Mexico’s national migration institute (INM) entered two budget hotels on a small street in Ciudad Acuna and escorted about two dozen migrants, including toddlers, onto vans.

One woman, speaking from behind a partition, told Reuters she did not know where they were being taken.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Drazen Jorgic, Robert Birsel)

Harris meets Mexico president in effort to lower migration from Central America

By Nandita Bose

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday as part of her first trip abroad since taking office as she tries to lower migration from Central America which has spiked in recent months.

Harris and Lopez Obrador witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding on development agencies working in Central America.

The accord is aimed at reducing the number of migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – to the United States through Mexico.

Since President Joe Biden took office in January, the number of migrants taken into custody per month at the U.S.-Mexico border has risen to the highest levels in 20 years. Many are from Central America.

Harris has been tasked by Biden to address the migrant flow.

On a visit to Guatemala on Monday, she told potential migrants “Do not come,” to the United States.

She visits Mexico after midterm elections on Sunday eroded Lopez Obrador’s power base in Congress,

Lopez Obrador’s leftist National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party held the lower house of Congress but was weakened. The party dominated state votes.

A Mexican government official said the timing of Harris’ visit was not ideal. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the United States had pushed for the visit.

When asked if the election results would change the U.S. strategy in Mexico, Ricardo Zuniga, the Biden administration’s special envoy to the Northern Triangle countries, said the relationship does not depend on who is in power or domestic politics. “It really doesn’t impact our plans.”

Harris spokeswoman and senior adviser Symone Sanders said late on Monday the vice president’s meeting with Lopez Obrador will follow up on a virtual meeting they had in May.

Sanders said Harris on Tuesday will look to build on topics discussed during the May meeting such as the two countries jointly agreeing to secure their borders and bolster human rights protections and spurring economic development in the Northern Triangle countries and in southern Mexico.

They will also discuss migration specifically to the U.S.-Mexico border by stepping up enforcement, Sanders said.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, however, said ahead of the meeting on Tuesday that migration enforcement would not be part of the discussion.

Temporary work visas would be on the agenda, Ebrard said, as well as expanding options in Central America.

“We are not going to talk about operations or other things,” Ebrard said.

“What is going to be the focus of attention today is how we can promote development in the short term in these three countries,” he added, referring to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The Biden administration has been overwhelmed by the number of migrant children and families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, mostly from Central America and has looked to Mexico for help in slowing transit across its territory.

On Monday, Harris met with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and said the two leaders had “robust” talks on fighting corruption to deter migration from Central America.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Mexico City, additional reporting by Dave Graham, writing by Cassandra GarrisonEditing by Nick Zieminski and Alistair Bell)

Harris says talks in Guatemala were robust, tells migrants: ‘do not come’

By Nandita Bose and Sofia Menchu

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) -U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said on Monday she had “robust” talks with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on the need to fight corruption to help deter undocumented immigration from Central America to the United States.

At a news conference with Giammattei, Harris said a U.S. task force would work with local prosecutors to punish corrupt actors in the region.

The Biden administration has identified corruption as an underlying cause of the poverty and violence driving record numbers of Central Americans to go to the United States

In the build up to Harris’ visit to Guatemala, her first official overseas trip, differences of opinion emerged about the fight against graft, with corruption fighters feted by Washington being criticized by Giammattei.

“We had a robust, candid and thorough conversation,” Harris said at the news conference after a three-hour meeting with Giammattei, who said they had discussed U.S. concerns about developments in Guatemala.

“The president and I discussed the importance of anti-corruption and the importance of an independent judiciary,” Harris said. Washington has criticized the removal of a senior judge from Guatemala’s top court, in what Giammattei has argued was a legitimate process.

The corruption task force has been previously floated, but Harris gave more details, saying it will combine resources from the Justice, State and Treasury departments.

Giammattei defended his own record in fighting corruption, saying he had not been accused of wrongdoing and saying graft was not only a problem faced by politicians. The fight against drug trafficking needed to be an integral part of tackling corruption, he said.

On the immigration front he announced a new processing center for migrants sent back from Mexico and the United States, which could increase capacity. He said the focus of the two countries should be on creating prosperity.

Most Guatemalan migrants leave because of poverty, he said, and come from a few rural municipalities. Harris said Guatemalans should not take the dangerous journey north.

“Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders,” she said.

“If you come to our border, you will be turned back.”

Democrat Harris responded to questions about Republican criticism that she had not done enough to stem migration in the short term, saying she was working on the ground in Guatemala.

“I’m just focused on that kind of work as opposed to grand gestures,” she said.

The Biden administration on Monday also unveiled details of another task force of prosecutors to combat human smuggling in Central America and Mexico.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said the Joint Task Force Alpha would marshal Justice Department and Homeland Security resources against “the most prolific and dangerous” human smuggling and trafficking groups in the region, according to a statement. It said the group will complement the efforts to build cases against corrupt actors.

However, Washington’s push to tackle “root causes” of migration in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been undermined by a backlash against anti-corruption bodies the United States considers independent but that local elites say are biased.

Harris will also meet civil society leaders and entrepreneurs in Guatemala and then go to Mexico. Priorities include economic development, climate and food insecurity and women’s issues, White House officials said.

There has been criticism from some officials in Guatemala and Mexico over the timing and thrust of Harris’ mission, with the Mexico talks scheduled on Tuesday, just days after mid-term elections there.

Harris said she discussed sharing COVID-19 vaccines with Guatemala during Monday’s meeting. She confirmed that the United States would supply half a million COVID-19 doses to Guatemala and provide $26 million to fight the pandemic.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Guatemala City; Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala CityEditing by Frank Jack Daniel, Sonya Hepinstall and Grant McCool)

Mexico eyes easing U.S. border curbs from June 22, depending on COVID

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -Mexico and the United States are discussing relaxing curbs on non-essential land border crossings from June 22, depending on the spread of COVID-19 and how many people in both countries have been vaccinated, Mexico’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

The two neighbors have agreed to extend for another month restrictions on non-essential travel across their shared border until just before midnight on June 21, the ministry said in statement on Twitter.

Mexico has also decided to extend curbs on non-essential travel on its southern border with Guatemala over the same period, it added.

“Mexico and the United States are in discussions to relax from June 22 the restrictions on border crossings on the basis of indices on the spread of COVID-19 and the number of vaccines applied on both sides of the border,” the ministry said.

Mexico, which has a population of 126 million, has so far administered nearly 24 million vaccine doses against COVID-19, the health ministry said on Tuesday.

Numbers of new infections and deaths from the virus in Mexico have fallen sharply in recent weeks.

Earlier, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told a regular news conference that his country was hoping that restrictions on the U.S.-Mexico border imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic would be lifted during the summer.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito)

U.S. to set aside 6,000 guest worker visas for Central Americans – sources

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration plans to set aside 6,000 seasonal guest worker visas for people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to two sources familiar with the matter, a small step toward establishing more legal pathways to the United States from the region.

The 6,000-visa allotment would be part of an additional 22,000 H-2B visas made available to employers in the current fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, a U.S. official and a second person familiar with the matter said.

The increase has been sought by business groups but opposed by labor unions amid high unemployment related to the coronavirus pandemic.

President Joe Biden has grappled in recent months with a rising number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, including families and unaccompanied children. In March, about 85,000 of the 172,000 migrants caught at the border came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Biden officials have urged migrants not to travel to the border while systems are established that allow them to seek asylum from their home countries or come to the United States through other legal pathways.

The extra H-2B visas would be in addition to the annual allotment of 66,000 visas for the fiscal year, a tally that was exhausted in February. The visas are used for landscaping, food processing and hotel work, among other seasonal jobs.

If the 6,000 visas are not used by companies seeking to hire people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, they would go back to the general visa pool sometime before Sept. 30, the two people familiar with the matter said.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)

Bumpy first weeks of Harris’ immigration role show challenges of the job

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When President Joe Biden entrusted Vice President Kamala Harris in March with leading U.S. diplomatic efforts to cut immigration from Mexico and Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” experts described the job as both “perilous” and a “political grenade.”

The subsequent weeks have shown just how challenging the role will be as the administration seeks to defuse a crisis at the border.

Harris has pushed Central American countries to increase troops at their borders and said she plans to visit Guatemala and Mexico, which could happen in as soon as a month.

At a meeting with advisers last week, which focused heavily on anti-corruption efforts, Harris spoke about tackling the root causes of migration that have plagued the region for decades – gang violence, drug-trafficking cartels, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes – with diplomacy.

But thorny issues have already surfaced with the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and unaccompanied children continue to show up at the U.S. border with Mexico.

Representatives for Harris did not comment but cited administration statements on the issue.

To succeed in her task, Harris needs to balance opposing priorities, experts and advisers said.

They include maintaining political distance from Central American leaders while conveying that the United States wants to cooperate, and long-term strategies to fix the underlying reasons people are fleeing those countries as well as small wins that can result in immediate success at home.

Harris is still calibrating the right tone, said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, who recently participated in a meeting Harris convened about problems in the region.

“The tone issue looks at how do you both recognize the need to work with the people in the region and at the same time call attention to some of the real deficits of governance in these countries,” Selee said.

The vice president is working with members of Biden’s Cabinet and the U.S. special envoy to the Northern Triangle, Ricardo Zuniga, and having weekly lunches with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a senior White House official said.

She gets updates on the region during the President’s Daily Brief and holds regular meetings on Central America with her team, the official said.

The White House’s immigration team has shown signs of strain. Roberta Jacobson, the high-profile “border czar,” is leaving at the end of the month, the White House said unexpectedly on April 9.

Tensions are also rising between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the White House over overloaded shelters at the border.

Harris has started working as well with the private sector to expand investment opportunities in the Northern Triangle and with international organizations about strengthening those economies, while overseeing the use and flow of aid and trying to increase ways for asylum seekers to apply from home, the official said.

TOUGH SPOT FOR DIPLOMACY

In what some U.S. experts called a challenge to the Biden administration, Guatemalan lawmakers refused on Monday to swear in a corruption-fighting judge, Constitutional Court President Gloria Porras, who U.S. officials had seen as key to the fight against graft there.

Harris spoke with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on March 30, when he asked her about the possibility of purchasing COVID-19 vaccines, officials told Reuters, a question that was not included in the U.S. readout of the call.

On April 5, Guatemala said it was purchasing 16 million Russian Sputnik V vaccines instead, to inoculate about half the country’s population.

Getting vaccines to those countries is an immediate way to show that the United States cares, said Selee, adding it was high on their list “because it is key to restarting economic life.”

An administration official said it was not politically tenable to assure vaccine supplies to other countries before inoculating every American. A spokeswoman for Harris declined comment on the issue.

El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, who won a landslide victory in 2019 on a pledge to root out corruption but has faced criticism from rights groups for what they see as autocratic leanings, criticized the U.S. strategy after Harris’ new role was announced.

“A recycled plan that did not work in 2014 will not work now,” he wrote on Twitter.

In March, a U.S. court sentenced the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez to life in prison for drug trafficking. There is also a U.S. Senate bill proposing sanctions on the Honduran president for corruption.

Harris “must keep a distance from the Honduran government right now,” said Lisa Haugaard, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, who attended last week’s meeting with Harris.

Harris has not yet spoken with Bukele or Hernandez.

EARLY ‘WIN’ CRITICIZED BY SUPPORTERS

Her deal with Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to increase troops at their borders to stop people from fleeing – which the White House announced on April 12, is already being criticized by aid groups.

“Restricting people from fleeing for their lives is not a win, it is illegal,” said Noah Gottschalk, the global policy lead for Oxfam America. “We are concerned this will lead to human rights violations by security forces.”

A representative from Oxfam participated in last week’s meeting.

Harris’ focus on diplomacy, not the way that asylum seekers are treated at the border, is a hard political sell at home, for Republicans and Democrats, experts said.

“Democratic voters do not care as much about diplomatic maneuverings as they do about the handling of migrants at the border and that is how they will ultimately judge Harris,” said Jennifer Piscopo, associate professor of politics and Latin American studies at Los Angeles-based Occidental College.

“It will be hard to separate her from what is happening at the border.”

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Heather Timmons and Peter Cooney)

White House official says Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala to increase troops on borders

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration has secured agreements for Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala to place more troops on their borders, a White House official told Reuters on Monday amid the growing number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border.

The official did not provide any details. Earlier, White House aide Tyler Moran told MSNBC that the Biden administration had secured agreements with Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala to put more troops on their own border.

Reuters was not immediately able to establish what agreements the officials were referring to or whether they go beyond existing enforcement measures in those countries.

The Mexican, Honduran and Guatemalan governments did not respond immediately to requests for comment about any new measures.

Reuters reported in March that Mexico had stepped up raids aimed at rounding up immigrants transiting illegally north toward the U.S. border, and reinforced its efforts along its border with Guatemala.

Those efforts have not yet produced significant results, and have been complicated by pandemic restrictions and new rules limiting the capacity of Mexican immigration detention centers.

In January, just before Biden took office, Guatemala deployed security forces to halt a U.S.-bound caravan of migrants, and Guatemalan government officials have vowed to keep up the pressure.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in Mexico City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Tim Ahmann)

Migrant caravan of hundreds departs in Honduras for United States

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Several hundred Hondurans set off for the Guatemalan border on Tuesday, seeking to reach the United States to escape the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and natural disasters, according to local media and a Reuters witness.

The group of migrants was the second large caravan to set out from Honduras this year, on the heels of catastrophic flooding in November from hurricanes Eta and Iota, which battered an economy that was already seriously struggling.

Central Americans have made up the bulk of a sharp increase in migrants trying to reach the United States via Mexico in recent weeks, putting pressure on U.S. President Joe Biden. The crisis includes the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

The migrant caravan in Honduras, mostly young adults with backpacks and women carrying children, began walking in the early morning from a bus terminal in the northern city of San Pedro Sula to the town of Corinto at the Guatemalan border.

“You have to take risks to have a better life in the United States, in Honduras we’re never going to do anything,” migrant Carlos Flores told a local television station. “Here you can hardly eat with what you earn, if you can even find work.”

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Volcanic ash blamed as Biden envoys’ Guatemala trip ditched

By Sofia Menchu

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – A delegation of senior Biden administration aides has postponed a trip to Guatemala because of heightened activity by the Pacaya volcano, the Central American country’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday.

Juan Gonzalez, one of U.S. President Joe Biden’s top aides for Latin America, and Ricardo Zuniga, newly appointed U.S. special envoy for Central America’s Northern Triangle, were due to meet with Guatemalan ministers on Thursday.

“The mission decided to postpone its arrival in Guatemala because of the conditions with the Pacaya volcano,” the foreign ministry said, adding that no new date had yet been set for the postponed meetings.

Shortly after the postponement was announced, Biden named Vice President Kamala Harris to lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to try and stem the flow of migration, amid a sharp rise in recent weeks.

Ahead of the scheduled visit, the envoys said the Biden strategy would include a focus on improving the rule of law and tackling corruption in the Northern Triangle.

“They can criticize us for trying to involve ourselves in internal matters, but when Guatemala’s justice system works the United States benefits,” Gonzalez told Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre.

Pacaya spewed ash and small rocks across Guatemala’s capital on Tuesday, causing the temporary closure of the international airport. The airport was officially open on Wednesday morning, after soldiers armed with plastic brooms swept the runway clean.

“Foiled by Pacaya,” Gonzalez wrote on Twitter. “We will be back.”

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Rosalba O’Brien)

Biden sends envoys to Mexico, Guatemala asking help on migrant flow

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – U.S. officials will ask authorities in Mexico and Guatemala to help stem migrant traffic, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday, as the Biden administration struggles to contain a burgeoning humanitarian challenge along the U.S. border with Mexico.

President Joe Biden dispatched U.S. envoys, including White House border coordinator Roberta Jacobson, to the two countries on Monday for talks on how to manage the increase in the number of migrants heading for the U.S.-Mexican border.

When asked if the U.S. delegation would seek support from local officials, Psaki told a news briefing:

“Absolutely, part of our objective as Roberta Jacobson,…conveyed when she was in here just a few weeks ago, was that we need to work in partnership with these countries to address the root causes in their countries to convey clearly and systematically that this is not the time to travel.”

Jacobson was joined by Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, and Honduran-born diplomat Ricardo Zuniga, just appointed by the State Department as the Northern Triangle special envoy.

Gonzalez will continue to Guatemala to meet Guatemalan officials, as well as representatives from civil society and non-governmental organizations.

Biden’s promise to end former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies has been complicated by a recent spike in the number of migrants crossing the border illegally.

The increase in the number of migrants fleeing violence, natural disasters and economic hardship in Central America is testing Biden’s commitment to a more humane immigration policy.

White House spokeswoman Emily Horne said Jacobson’s goal in Mexico is developing “an effective and humane plan of action to manage migration.”

The visit was also announced by Mexico’s foreign ministry, which said the talks would take place on Tuesday.

Gonzalez’ aim in Guatemala is to “address root causes of migration in the region and build a more hopeful future in the region,” Horne said.

U.S. officials are struggling to house and process an increasing number of unaccompanied children, many of whom have been stuck in jail-like border stations for days while they await placement in overwhelmed government-run shelters.

Biden has resisted calling the border drama a crisis despite Republicans’ insistence that it fits the description.

“Children presenting at our border, who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing prosecution, who are fleeing terrible situations, is not a crisis,” Psaki told reporters.

Biden and his team had a mixed message at the outset of the border woes, saying the border was closed but that unaccompanied children would be given care.

Psaki said the Biden administration has placed 17,118 radio ads in Spanish, Portuguese and 6 indigenous languages to discourage U.S.-bound migration from Central America and Brazil. She said 589 digital ads have also been placed.

Mexico has beefed up law enforcement at its southern border to stem a sharp increase in migrants entering the country to head for the United States.

“The main issue to discuss will be cooperation for development in Central America and the south of Mexico, as well as the joint efforts for safe, orderly and regular migration,” Roberto Velasco, the top official at the Mexican foreign ministry for North America, said on Twitter.

Representatives of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean will also attend the meeting, Velasco said.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Alistair Bell)