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VP Harris Heading To Mexico, Guatemala Amid Migration Surge

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Vice President Kamala Harris arrives in Guatemala Sunday night. It's her first trip to Central America since President Biden assigned her to tackle the surge in migration from the region. She plans to meet with the presidents of Guatemala and Mexico, along with business and civic leaders. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Mexico City.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: This won't be the first time Vice President Harris meets Mexico's leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Good morning, Mr. President. Good morning. It is my honor to meet with you.

PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

HARRIS: (Laughter).

KAHN: They have talked a few times virtually, like this video call last month. And just yesterday, Harris called Lopez Obrador to let him know the U.S. is sending Mexico 1 million COVID-19 vaccines. He tweeted that was very kind of her to call. Their first face-to-face meeting, however, might be tougher. U.S. and Mexico relations have hit some bumps lately, especially when it comes to sharing security intelligence and U.S. funding of Mexican free-speech groups.

Carlos Heredia, Mexican economist at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, says Lopez Obrador was very comfortable with Donald Trump, mostly because the former president stayed out of Mexico's affairs. Trump only cared about Mexico stopping Central American migrants from getting to the U.S.

CARLOS HEREDIA: So now it's different, and the president of Mexico does not feel comfortable dealing with a neighbor that is opinionated and has a lot to say about issues that should be of common interest.

KAHN: Both countries have found common ground when it comes to migration, saying they want to attack the root causes, like lack of economic opportunities and corruption. The Biden administration has repeatedly called Mexico an essential partner in achieving that goal. But Tonatiuh Guillen Lopez, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says both countries talk that humanitarian talk but continue to attack the problem only with police and the military, especially in Mexico.

TONATIUH GUILLEN LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We still have the control police migration plan that was imposed on Mexico by President Trump," says Guillen.

GUILLEN LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "There is such a big contradiction in what Lopez Obrador says versus what he does," says Guillen, who resigned as head of Mexico's immigration institute after Lopez Obrador sent in the military to stop migrants from reaching the U.S. border. And Lopez Obrador is facing rising criticism for his attacks on the media, defunding independent institutions and publicly criticizing judges who rule against his populist policies. Mariana Aparicio Ramirez of the Binational Mexico United States Relationship Observatory says she doubts U.S. concerns over those issues will come up.

MARIANA APARICIO RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Now isn't the time to get into those thorny topics," says Aparicio. "Publicly, the vice president and Lopez Obrador will just focus on U.S.-Mexico cooperation." Andrew Selee of the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute agrees but says that doesn't mean they're going to see eye to eye on everything.

ANDREW SELEE: It is a necessary partnership for both, and I have a feeling they're proceeding from that understanding rather than from the idea that it's an ideal partnership.

KAHN: Getting tough on corruption and anti-democratic practices by governments in the region is the U.S.'s top priority, says Ricardo Zuniga, the State Department's special envoy to Central America.

RICARDO ZUNIGA: This is not us imposing the United States or imposing U.S. values or imposing U.S. law. All we're saying is, comply with the law that's on the books, and comply with local demands for accountability.

KAHN: He tells NPR he knows that tough new stance isn't being embraced by all, but that's U.S. policy now and something Vice President Harris will make clear on her trip next week.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.