White House officials to visit Mexico, Guatemala to address root cause of migrant surge

The trip come as nearly 100,000 migrants were detained at the border last month.

March 22, 2021, 11:51 AM

White House coordinator for the southern border Roberta Jacobson and the National Security Council’s Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez will travel to Mexico Monday and Guatemala later this week, and Gonzalez will continue on to Guatemala later this week, for what administration officials described as "ongoing discussions on how to manage an effective and humane plan of action on migration."

Special Assistant to the President & Coordinator for the Southern Border Ambassador Roberta Jacobson speaks as White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki listens during a daily press briefing at the White House, March 10, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jacobsen and Gonzalez will be joined by the State Department Northern Triangle Special Envoy Ricardo Zuniga. Zuniga’s appointment in the role will be announced by the State Department later Monday, the officials said.

"This is an important trip and one that builds on the administration’s focused work on addressing the root causes of irregular migration as a cyclical regional issue that neither starts nor stops at the southern border of the United States," a senior administration official said on a call with reporters.

Jacobson is set to meet with Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, Undersecretary Roberto Velasco, and other officials from the foreign ministry and the Mexican National Institute of Migration.

The official did not provide detailed information on what asks the U.S. government might make of the Mexican and Guatemalan governments to help stem the influx of migrants. A senior administration official said they have spoken to their counterparts in Mexico more than any other country, and described their “clear-eyed, shared view about our challenge,” but did not mention a shared view on the potential solutions.

"These aren’t the first conversations with Mexico, but we wanted to do them in person," the senior administration official said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents take into custody people near the U.S.-Mexico border, March 20, 2021, in Hidalgo, Texas.
Julio Cortez/AP

Gonzalez will be heading the trip to Guatemala, meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, Foreign Minister Pedro Bolo, and with officials from the economic and security ministries.

A senior administration official indicated Gonzalez would be discussing joint development initiatives to increase economic opportunity in the region.

The trip comes as migrant crossings of the southern U.S. border are increasing, with nearly 100,000 migrants detained at the border in February. The number of unaccompanied minors being held in CBP custody for more than 240 hours has increased almost exponentially in just the past week.

In February, there were about 44,000 apprehensions of Mexicans, and 44,000 apprehensions of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans combined, illustrating the U.S. government’s challenge in working across multiple governments to address root causes.

Officials on the call emphasized addressing the root causes of migration, saying the surge of migrants will stop only once conditions in their home countries improve.

“Only by improving governance and providing a foundation for investment and economic opportunity, strengthening security and the rule of law by changing the drivers that push families and individuals to make the dangerous choice to migrate irregularly, can we break the cycle of desperation and provide hope for families who clearly would prefer to stay in their countries,” the official continued.

A photo released by Congressman Henry Cuellar's office shows a crowded U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporary overflow facility in Donna, Texas. According to Rep. Cueller, the photo was taken between March 20-21, 2021.
Courtesy U.S. Congressman Henry Cueller's office

But an official was also blunt in saying the border is closed, a pointed message after weeks of Biden administration officials telling migrants to not come "right now" -- suggesting the time would be right to come, eventually.

"No one, especially children and families with young children should make the dangerous trip to try and enter the U.S. in an irregular fashion. The border is not open," one senior administration official said.

The comment clashed with what Jacobson said from the White House briefing room podium just 12 days ago, when she acknowledged mixed messages on the border were becoming a problem for the administration.

"I think when you look at the issue of mixed messages, it is difficult at times to convey both hope in the future and the danger that is now. And that is what we’re trying to do," Jacobsen said on March 10. "And I -- I will certainly agree that we are trying to walk and chew gum at the same time."

“Rebuilding our broken system will take time, and it will take a whole, the whole of government effort President Biden has directed,” the official said.

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