Apr 23 2021
By: Sabrina Rodriguez
“The song remains the same.”
That’s how Carper summarizes all the latest talk about the increased number of migrants arriving at the border — and the debate surrounding what to do about it.
Carper has been around for several border “crisis”-or-not-a-“crisis” debates on Capitol Hill. And through them all, he’s had the same message: Let’s look farther south than the border. Let’s help these countries address the reasons why thousands of people are fleeing their homes in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
So far, the Biden administration has been all about the U.S.-Mexico border. Biden is still using a public health order invoked by then-President Donald Trump to expel most migrants crossing the border. Biden's administration has spent much of the past two months trying to expand capacity to house and process thousands of unaccompanied children arriving.
However, Carper is optimistic his longtime friend Biden will do more than just fixate on the border.
And on Monday, there could be some movement in that direction. Vice President Kamala Harris is set to meet virtually with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei to discuss ways to tackle the increased migration. Harris, who last month was tapped by Biden as the point person on tackling root causes of migration, will also visit the region in June.
I sat down with Carper, who has been to Central America at least five times in the past seven years, to talk about what, for years, has prompted migrants to make the trek to the U.S. — and what his buddy Biden has to say about it. His staff said he’d have four decades-worth of stories and knowledge of the region to share. They were right.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
THE RECAST: Let’s start with a little background. You’ve been pushing for a comprehensive look at the Northern Triangle countries for years. Why? And where do things stand right now?
SEN. CARPER: The song remains the same.
My mom was a deeply spiritual person. She made sure that my sister and I were, too, and so she wanted us to understand this verse description in the New Testament, Matthew 25 that talks about our moral obligation. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
But I always say: If all we do when we have the stranger in our land — in this case from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, who are coming to us because of the conditions they’re facing — if all we do is welcome them, then 20 years from now, 30 years from now, we’re still going to have people making that dangerous trek to our border to seek asylum. And we’ve got to be smarter.
We can walk and chew gum at the same time here. And while it's important for us to be humane and provide opportunities for asylum, it’s better to provide those opportunities in-country, for example. That’s something the president himself has talked about with me. He strongly agrees with the idea that folks having to trek a thousand miles to apply for asylum is not very smart.
THE RECAST: What needs to happen under the Biden administration to address root causes of migration that hasn’t happened in the past?
SEN. CARPER: Well, actually [then-Vice President] Joe Biden was asked by [President] Barack Obama to figure out what to do with the Northern Triangle because he knew of Joe's heavy involvement in the development of Plan Colombia [a U.S. initiative that aimed to end the armed conflict in Colombia and fight illegal drug production and organized crime surrounding it. U.S. and Colombian officials have praised it, but its record is mixed.]
The question Barack asked Joe was: Do you think we can talk [about] what we learned from Plan Colombia, some of the success there, imperfect as it is? How can we apply that in the Northern Triangle? And out of that came a plan that was developed with a lot of input from those countries — Alliance for Prosperity [which aimed to increase economic opportunities, improve public safety and increase public trust of the governments in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador].
To sum it up, the elements of that plan look to me a lot like the Home Depot slogan: You can do it. We can help.
THE RECAST: What exactly are these root causes that need to be addressed?
SEN. CARPER: There’s three basic reasons. One of those is crime and violence. Another is corruption; People are fed up with the corruption. I’ve seen politicians elected president of those countries, where they start off pure — and four years later, they’re on their way to prison.
The third one is really economic opportunity and creating hope.
The key here is to use American dollars to leverage other money from within these countries to tackle those three I just listed. It’s to leverage money from other countries, from the business community, the international business community, the NGOs and foundations — and then also have metrics in place that actually ensure the money is being used appropriately.
When I spoke to the president, we talked about whether the money should be funneled directly to these governments and, in many cases, probably not. In some cases, it’s unavoidable.
The oversight piece is really critical down there. You need the incredibly strong oversight from the State Department, you need strong oversight from the appropriation from Congress itself.
THE RECAST: How have your conversations with Biden about migration gone since he became president?
SEN. CARPER: I think I could fill a book with the conversations I’ve had with him in the last couple of months.
He urged me to go down to the border. The administration urged me several weeks ago and I did that. And as soon as I got back, in fact, while I was still down there, he tried to reach me on the phone. It was the next day that we finally connected.
We talked and he and I both committed to the idea that we could welcome the stranger at our border and be humane. We can be humane and welcoming and try to provide a good handoff [of the unaccompanied minors arriving from Border Patrol facilities] to Health and Human Services folks as they try to help those who are arriving on our borders to connect them to their specific potential sponsors — which for many are parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles here in the U.S. We can do all of that and do it well.
But if we only welcome them, then we’re still going to have hundreds of thousands of people trying to come in 10, 20, 30 years from now. So, we agree that we’ve got to be able to address the root causes, the things that make people leave.
We also talked about the need for ambassadors. I said to the president, the first thing I would do is make sure we get screened, vetted and nominated, terrific people to serve as ambassadors to Honduras. We haven’t had a confirmed one since 2017. And we also talked about the need to have the resources in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador’s embassies and consulates so that people can avoid a 1,000-mile trip.
He told me at the end: I want you to talk to Kamala. And the next day I talked to Kamala.
THE RECAST: Where does Vice President Harris fit in the strategy? And how’d that talk with her go?
SEN. CARPER: One of the things I’ve heard Joe say forever is: All politics is personal. All diplomacy is personal.
He talked a bit about continuing to do that. And part of what Harris as VP will do is the job he used to have, to develop those kinds of personal relationships with the leaders of these countries. Let them know what our expectations are and if they behave in a way that we think is honorable and true to their oath that they take, then things will turn out well. If they don't, there’ll be consequences for that.
[Harris and I] had a good talk. We covered a lot of the stuff I talked about with the president. And then, I said, ‘What would be good? I think it’s great we’re having this conversation, but what would be better is if my CODEL [the group of five lawmakers he went to the border with in early April] could [engage] with your staff since it’s your responsibility now to know the [Northern] Triangle. And the next day we had that. That’s pretty good responsiveness in the span of like 72 hours.
So, I’m thrilled. I’ve been following this a long time and I’m thrilled we now have an administration that understands that we have an obligation to the stranger… but we have to be smart enough to make sure we do more than just welcome them and figure out what’s going on in these countries. We’ve got to be able to do both.