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Kamala Harris’ Empty Words

The vice president's speech in Guatemala was hollow, cruel, and disingenuous—just like the Biden administration's overall immigration policy.

Kamala Harris speaks in Guatemala
ABC News

There are many things the Biden administration could do about our broken immigration system, but will never do, no matter what the GOP and their racist fever dreams insist the Democrats support. But it often feels demoralizing to be reminded about just how little the Biden administration will do to help immigrants and potential migrants, especially given the role the United States has played in fomenting the conditions that migrants are more often than not attempting to escape by coming to the U.S.

Take Vice President Kamala Harris’ speech at a press conference on Monday alongside Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. During her conversation with Giammattei, she said, the two had agreed that they want to reduce Guatemalan migration to the U.S.

“Most people don’t want to leave where their grandmother lives and when they do it is usually for one of two reasons, because they are fleeing some type of harm or because to stay means that they cannot provide for their essential needs and the needs of their family,” Harris said. But her understanding of why people need to leave, and why that need is so pressing, stopped there.

She said everyone wanted to give people hope, hope that they could turn into relief in order to stay in Guatemala. It’s all very positive and nice. From her comments, emphasis mine:

The President and I share a firm belief that our responsibility and our capacity is to give people a sense of hope.

We talked extensively about this through the many conversations we’ve had, including today. The power of hope, the ability that each of our governments has to give people a sense that help is on the way to let them know that they are seen, that they are heard, that we see their capacity, but we also understand their challenges and their need for support and the resources that any human being needs to be able to survive much less thrive. So that was fundamentally the spirit behind the conversation that we had.

I guess all policy has to begin somewhere, but “giving people hope” is such a dismal, empty starting point, devoid of any real action to help people flee the threats or violence they’re facing at home.

Harris did go on to mention several plans she had to make Guatemala safer for people, including an anti-corruption task force, a second task force that works with local law enforcement to stop human and drug smuggling, a “young women’s empowerment initiative,” and investing in agribusiness and affordable housing. All of which are fixes to problems, but not problems of imminent danger. And yes, I am aware of the system Harris has proposed for seeking asylum while in Central America (more on that later). But hope is what you seek to give to people in order to string them along — the greatest lie in the Biden playbook.

Regardless, it’s not this set of comments that illustrate the Biden administration’s unwillingness to take the fears of migrating Central Americans seriously — at least, beyond attempting to replicate empathy with a veneer of social justice by making sure that they feel “seen” and “heard.” No, the comments that really mattered came later in her speech, now infamous among the online immigrant advocacy community: Don’t come here, because if you do, we will turn you away.

From the transcript again, emphasis mine:

And I want to emphasize that the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home. At the same time, I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border, do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border. There are legal methods by which migration can and should occur, but we, as one of our priorities, will discourage illegal migration. And I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.

It’s all very cruel. Here are some things to help tide you over while you consider whether it’s more dangerous to stay at home or travel a thousand-plus miles. But also, don’t come here, because even if you deem it more dangerous to stay at home, we’ll definitely make you go back.

It’s also completely disingenuous. Harris vaguely mentioned that the administration wants “legal migration,” but the Biden administration is currently enforcing Title 42, the CDC public health policy that the Trump administration, and now the Biden administration, has used to justify effectively closing the border amid the pandemic. Title 42 is in place in a majority of the border sectors. It’s been used to expel adults and families from the U.S. as soon as they arrive, though the Biden administration has allowed unaccompanied children to stay. The law blocks even people trying to use their internationally protected right to seek asylum—you know, one of those “legal migration” methods Harris was presumably referring to. Bizarrely, she also didn’t mention the Central America-based asylum application process she previously announced (not that that policy, which overlooks that people seek asylum precisely because they can’t stay where they are, is particularly useful).

Rereading her comments again, I find myself caught on the last line: “I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.” What was stopping Harris from saying that she knows this to be true? Was she attempting to break any hope Guatemalans may have in entering the U.S., while avoiding addressing the reality that some migrants — very few people, to be clear — aren’t being expelled from the U.S?

It was also interesting to hear Harris elaborate on previous attempts by the U.S. to address “corruption” in Central American and Mexican governments, as one reporter characterized it in a question. Again from the transcript, emphasis mine:

And I do believe that with the work that we are doing, some of it which is new, there’ve been many attempts at collaboration between the United States and this region of the world over many years, as you know. Some have worked some have not. There are aspects of what we are doing now that are new, and also are based on this new era, again where there’s, I think, a greater appreciation for the interdependence and the interconnection.

Well if that isn’t a glorious glossing over of the ways that the U.S. has launched seemingly endless attempts to overthrow governments and stamp out left-wing movements in Central America, thus playing a key role in creating the immigration crisis, then I don’t know what is! Of course, this is how the Biden administration has chosen to frame its current proposed interventions: some things happened in the past that were bad but we care about Guatemalan migrants so these interventions are different. And also don’t come here.

But Harris’ speech was no different than what the Biden administration has communicated for the past seven months about immigration — that we want migrants to be safe, but we’re not going to do as much as we could about it, because we don’t want to. Three months ago, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the same thing: “The border is closed. We are expelling families. We are expelling single adults … We strongly urge, and the message is clear, not to do so now. I cannot overstate the perils of the journey that they take.” Again, with that hope that if not now, then later.

Perhaps that may also be the reason that Harris’ comments didn’t receive much heat from centrists and liberals — had these comments come from anyone from the Trump administration, I imagine that the reception would have been at least a bit different. I can only suppose that people feel like immigrants have hope that our immigration system could improve, or that Biden can solve all of the problems the U.S. created to make Central American countries safer for its residents, and that would-be migrants can just stay there.

But also, of course, I write this cynically, knowing that some these same people aren’t guided by hope. They just do not care about Harris and the administration expelling people instead of taking and processing their asylum claims, and could only be bothered to care when it was socially inconvenient for them to not seem like they did.

Since Harris’ trip to Guatemala, the immigration discourse has simmered, with the GOP instead feigning outrage that Harris was in Guatemala instead of visiting the U.S.-Mexico border, and blaming the Biden administration for the spike in undocumented people arrested at the border. Despite this outrage, it’s clear that what right-wing immigration hawks want and what “sensible” Democrats are doing aren’t so different — after all, the Biden administration is working on ways to get people to stay where they are, telling people they can’t come here, and then arresting them when people come here because they have no other choice.