VP Harris announces business investments in Central America

AP Political
Kamala Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, after swearing in Kristen Clarke as assistant attorney general for civil rights, Tuesday, May 25, 2021, at the Justice Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday announced commitments from a dozen companies and organizations to invest in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to address the root causes of migration from the region.

Participants in the new program include corporate giants Mastercard and Microsoft as well as Pro Mujer, a nonprofit that focuses on providing aid to low-income women in Latin America, along with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the World Economic Forum.

Harris issued what her office described as a “call to action” for businesses and nonprofits to make new commitments to promote economic opportunity in Central America. At an event announcing the initiative, Harris declared that private businesses have “a very significant role to play in creating jobs and promoting economic opportunity and creating long-term development.”

Leaders in the effort joined Harris virtually and in person Thursday for the event at her ceremonial office.

Luis von Ahn, CEO of the language-learning app Duolingo, said in a blog post Thursday that about 500,000 people in the Northern Triangle region already use Duolingo’s advertising-driven free app, mostly to learn English and improve their job prospects. The company also offers a $49 online English proficiency test accepted by many colleges in the U.S. and elsewhere, and as part of the White House call, he said it’s going to waive the cost of the test for many Central Americans.

Von Ahn said he grew up in Guatemala City in the 1980s and 1990s, a “particularly unsafe time in my country’s history,” but was lucky to be able to go to a good school and come to the U.S. for higher education.

The aim of the new effort is to focus aid on supporting vulnerable populations such as women and young people, and to invest in internet access, job-training programs and efforts to combat food shortages.

It’s part of Harris’ role in dealing with the root causes of migration to the United States, a task she was given by President Joe Biden in March. Harris has had multiple calls with the presidents of Guatemala and Mexico and has held meetings with interest groups, policy experts and companies from the region.

She plans to visit Guatemala and Mexico in early June for her first trip abroad as vice president.

Harris has emphasized the need for economic development in the region and for public-private partnerships to address the challenges there. The administration is backing a proposal to provide $7 billion in assistance to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to help address the poverty and violence that leads people to flee to the U.S.

But the increase in migration at the border has become a significant political headache for Harris and Biden. Republicans accuse them of inaction on what they say is a crisis created in part by the president’s decision to halt construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and end some restrictions on asylum-seekers.

April was the second-busiest month on record for unaccompanied children encountered at the border, following March’s all-time high, and the Border Patrol’s total encounters in April were up 3% from March, marking the highest level since April 2000. The April encounters are not directly comparable because most of those stopped were quickly expelled from the United States under federal pandemic-related powers that deny rights to seek asylum and because being expelled carries no legal penalty, many try to cross multiple times.

The increase has strained the capacity of the Border Patrol and the Department of Health and Human Services, which holds the minors in shelters until they can be placed with relatives or sponsors in the U.S. while authorities determine whether they have a legal right to remain in the country, either through asylum or for some other reason. It also has led to criticism from Republicans, who point to Harris and Biden’s decision not to visit the border to survey the situation as evidence of their negligence.

Although migration will be central in Harris’ visit, cooperation on security issues will also be discussed. On Thursday, David Cohen, deputy director of the CIA, had scheduled meetings in Mexico City with officials from the Army, the Navy and the Mexican National Intelligence Center.

Mexico’s Congress passed a law in December that restricts U.S. agents in Mexico and removed their diplomatic immunity. Experts say those restrictions could sour the security relationship with the United States, which provides much of Mexico’s intelligence on drug trafficking and money laundering cases.

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Associated Press writers Maria Verza in Mexico City and Matt O’Brien in Providence, R.I., contributed to this report.

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