WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris has begun to assemble a team to assist her in efforts to stem the migration surge from several Central American countries into the U.S., which has created one of the Biden administration’s first major challenges.
President Biden last month assigned Harris to take on this issue, similar to the role he played on migration in the Obama administration. Harris’s task, according to a member of her team, is to lead diplomatic efforts to “engage Mexico and the Northern Triangle to address the root causes of migration and to oversee the flow and use of U.S. aid,” as opposed to more granular immigration-focused issues surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border.
Critical to the efforts of the vice president, a relative newcomer to the issue, will be a few senior members of her own team, particularly national security adviser Nancy McEldowney and McEldowney’s supporting staff, as well as several White House officials, including Roberta Jacobson, senior coordinator for the southern border; Juan Gonzalez, senior director for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council; and Ricardo Zúñiga, special envoy for the Northern Triangle (which refers to three Central American countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).
Those four are no strangers to government service, and together are something of a dream team on migration issues, according to Dan Restrepo, a former principal adviser to President Barack Obama on Latin American affairs.
“There’s no better conceivable team when it comes to this issue,” said Restrepo, who worked closely with Jacobson, Gonzalez and Zúñiga during his tenure at the National Security Council, where he served as the senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Restrepo described his former colleagues as “deep policy experts,” all of whom were present for the crisis involving Central American unaccompanied minors in 2014, during the Obama administration. “They know how to make the U.S. interagency [process] function,” he said, describing them as adept at managing the often confounding processes of the State Department and other parts of government.
In March, before Biden put Harris in charge of this effort, the State Department announced Zúñiga’s new role, marking the first time since the 1980s that the U.S. has appointed a special envoy for Central America, according to Foreign Policy.
Zúñiga was critical to the creation of a multibillion-dollar aid package to Northern Triangle nations during the Obama administration and recently told Central American media that the U.S. is likely to push for good governance reforms above any forcible intervention tactic. Gonzalez told local media that the White House plans to set up a Northern Triangle anticorruption task force, though the administration has yet to release a firm timeline on that effort.
Zúñiga and Gonzalez boast a close relationship with Biden on the issue, as both served at different times as senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, which gives them substantial political credibility with the current administration and senior officials in the Northern Triangle countries as well as Mexico, Restrepo explained. Jacobson has substantial political capital with local officials as well, given her former rank as ambassador to Mexico.
“These folks are folks who have very tight relationships with President Biden, quite frankly, from his time as vice president, and who obviously are working very closely with Vice President Harris now,” Restrepo said. “They come with that imprimatur, if you will, of the people who matter the most. These are people they trust, and that’s known downrange.”
The bulk of McEldowney’s experience is in European affairs and in the Foreign Service, where she did stints as the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and held senior diplomatic appointments in Turkey and Azerbaijan. But former colleagues say that background will be an asset in working with U.S. diplomats. McEldowney is “universally admired and respected” by her State Department counterparts, said Kenneth Yalowitz, who served as a U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.
Yalowitz believes McEldowney will be a key adviser for Harris, who “is going to need a lot of expert advice from diplomats who are used to negotiating” through difficult conflict, especially regarding immigration. He believes the lessons McEldowney learned in dealing with the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute in Azerbaijan will be critical in tackling the Northern Triangle migration crisis.
“She’s very calm, she’s very levelheaded. She’s very thoughtful, very intelligent, just the kind of person that you would want to deal with a very, very complex issue, someone who can draw on her diplomatic experience and has seen issues from a variety of viewpoints,” said Yalowitz.
Even with top-notch staff working with Harris on migration issues, Brett Bruen, former director of global engagement at the National Security Council under Obama, points out that El Salvador and Honduras are still without U.S. ambassadors. Bruen said the lack of installed diplomatic envoys to these countries is a “major concern” within the State Department.
“They are strong Latin America policy hands, and they know the people, they know the issues, they’re making a good effort, but they’re not always latched up in the way that they should be with our embassies and with our career people,” he said.
While Bruen, who has worked with the Northern Triangle advisers, believes the assembled team to be strong, he said officials in the department worry it is inevitable that current White House staffers will run into some roadblocks, given the vacancies. Without ambassadors, “we don’t have people who can meet with senior officials in the government,” he said.
The current highest-ranking officials within the embassies, known as chargés d’affaires, won’t be enough, Bruen argued. “You don’t get the meetings, in many cases with the minister, certainly not with the head of state, and those are the meetings we need to be having,” he said.
Good staff also can’t necessarily solve a misplaced focus. Bruen said one problem with the Obama White House strategy toward Latin America was what he describes as its myopic focus on Cuba and on migrants. He and other regional experts believe the Biden White House needs to widen the aperture if it wants to achieve long-term success.
“The reality is, we need a bigger Latin America strategy, because we continue to try to stick this Silly Putty into the dam that is pretty badly cracked,” Bruen said. “And unless and until we actually deal with the broader issue of what’s happening in Latin America, we’re just wasting a lot of Silly Putty.”
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