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Harris’ visit to Guatemala and Mexico a mix of diplomacy and controversy

Vice President Kamala Harris wrapped up her first official foreign trip Tuesday, having gained exposure on the world stage in trying to reset U.S. relations in Latin America. But she got more attention back home for something else: controversies over her words on immigration.

Harris first angered some on the left in the United States with her strong statement Monday in Guatemala telling desperate would-be migrants, “Do not come” to the U.S. border, and warning that they’d be “turned back.” She then created a political dust-up — fanned on the right — with her replies to questions about why she had yet to visit the U.S.-Mexico border.

The blowback swirled amid the vice president’s diplomatic debut in Mexico City on Tuesday, a day after her visit to Guatemala’s capital. She met for more than two hours with Mexico’s populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and declared “we are embarking on a new era” in U.S.-Mexico relations, and with the world more broadly.

Harris, sitting across from the Mexican president at a long polished-wood table in a salon of the National Palace, noted the “interconnection and interdependence” of the two nations.

At a later news conference before returning to the United States, Harris said, “Do I declare this trip a success? Yes, I do.” She added, “It is a success in terms of creating a pathway that is about progress.” Asked whether she would commit to visit the border, where migrants have converged seeking entry, and do so soon, she replied, “Yes, I will, and I have before.”

In her two stops, the vice president pledged millions of dollars in U.S. loans and investment for housing and agriculture in both southern Mexico and northern Guatemala, and $130 million for improving working conditions in Mexico, including addressing safety issues and child labor. Such projects are key to the focus of Harris’ diplomacy: trying to discourage residents from fleeing the impoverished region.

Her two-day trip to Guatemala and Mexico was aimed in particular at curbing the influx of Central American migrants through Mexico to the U.S. border, by addressing the root causes such as poverty and violence that spur their flight. In Guatemala City, she also met with that nation’s president, community activists and entrepreneurs.

In her news conference, Harris emphasized, “The issue of root causes is not going to be fixed in one trip that took two days.”

But the questions that dogged the vice president, as well as administration officials back at the White House on Tuesday, were from reporters and politicians asking why she has not visited the border as part of her mandate to confront the “root causes” of Central Americans’ migration, and about the criticism of her warning to migrants.

Vice President Kamala Harris, in a mask, with U.S. and Mexican flags in background

Vice President Kamala Harris meets with labor leaders in Mexico City.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“The U.S. spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter. “We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”

The Interfaith Migration Coalition, a group of U.S.-based religious leaders, admonished Harris that seeking asylum was not illegal.

Harris told reporters traveling with her, “The work that we are doing by being in Guatemala yesterday and in Mexico today is the work of reinforcing the point that we have to look at not only what is actually happening at the border, but what is causing that to happen.”

In Guatemala, she’d made a similar point and added, “I will continue to be focused on that kind of work as opposed to grand gestures.”

Harris especially provoked criticism with her remarks in an interview with NBC News late Monday. She bristled when broadcaster Lester Holt pressed her about a border visit. “And I haven’t been to Europe,” Harris…

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