Kamala Harris sees solution to migration crisis in coffee beans, credit cards and Wi-Fi

Kamala Harris with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei flanked by flags
Vice President Kamala Harris met with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in Guatemala City in June.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

A team of experts in Switzerland has spent months smelling and tasting coffee harvested from the volcanic soil of Central America, trying to find farmers who can produce beans that will retain their flavor and complexity after they are ground up and packaged into Nespresso pods.

It’s a long way from Washington and the raging debate over immigration and the political fights on cable news over the U.S.-Mexico border. But the expansion of a collaboration between small coffee farmers and Nespresso, a Swiss coffee giant, exemplifies the hope and limitations of a broader U.S. plan spearheaded by Vice President Kamala Harris that aims to address the root causes of migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Pitched to American audiences as a way to curb migration, the plan is premised on enlisting government and private companies to address crises in the region, which include drug cartel violence, natural disasters, environmental degradation, poverty and corruption. It calls for spending as much as $4 billion in American taxpayer dollars and spurring at least $750 million in private investments seeding an array of economic and social programs intended to instill everything from a more functional digital economy to democratic values.

In the case of Nespresso, the U.S. administration hopes that the company’s practice of paying farmers more for coffee beans and the expertise of its agronomists will diminish the allure of smugglers offering would-be migrants a perilous journey to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Biden administration’s overarching strategy faces significant hurdles, however, both in the United States and in Central America.

A worker harvests coffee beans in Honduras near its border with Nicaragua.
A worker harvests coffee beans in Honduras near its border with Nicaragua.
(Orlando Sierra / AFP/Getty Images)

It could take years to rebuild institutions in ways that would persuade people to remain in their home countries. And any efforts to improve local conditions could also run headlong into serious corruption that has stymied such efforts in the past, according to American officials, activists and former diplomats in the region. Leaders in all three Central American countries known as the Northern Triangle have rebuffed efforts by Harris and other administration officials to protect democratic institutions as they have consolidated power.

“They are doing the right approach,” said Carmen Rosa de Leon, a government reform activist in Guatemala and one of a large cross-section of people who met with Harris when the vice president traveled to Guatemala in June. “But unfortunately, maybe we needed that approach 10 years ago, not now.”

The administration faces domestic political pressure to quickly curb migration, which is at historic highs, with Harris being hit by near-constant criticism on Republican-friendly cable news programs and from GOP politicians about issues at the border.

Agents stopped people from the three Central American countries more than 600,000 times near the U.S.-Mexico border in the budget year that ends Thursday, a substantial portion of the nearly 1.5 million total encounters.

“It’s not a faucet that you can turn off,” said Stephen Johnson, who worked on Latin American affairs under President George W. Bush, describing an influx of migrants in numbers not seen in two decades. “These are pressures that have been building for some time.”

Administration officials say they are using other tools to reduce migration in the short term. They have spent money on humanitarian assistance to displaced people, offered job training and placement to about 7,000 migrants who were sent back to their home countries and won some cooperation from Guatemalan and Mexican authorities on immigration enforcement.


As for addressing the deeper root causes of the migration crisis, administration officials say Harris and her staff get regular briefings on U.S. government efforts, and the vice president has been involved in calls and meetings with corporate and government leaders seeking to address the problem. She recently signed off on a 20-page strategic document that lays out goals for the root causes project but does not provide measurements or timelines. In an effort to expand the effort, Harris has solicited donations from the leaders of Ireland, Finland, Japan and South Korea to raise hundreds of millions of dollars.

Earlier this year, the administration also launched a nonprofit group, the Partnership for Central America, that has coordinated $750 million in industry commitments over the next decade. Jonathan Fantini Porter, who heads the nonprofit, said he expects the effort to grow much larger.

The commitments come from a range of companies, including U.S.-based Chobani yogurt and a pair of Latin American banks. Nespresso, which was already working with 1,000 farmers in Guatemala, has signed on 200 more in that country and is expanding to Honduras and El Salvador. Microsoft has begun wiring 2 million households to build internet networks in schools and Indigenous communities in Honduras, with an eye toward upgrading the weak business and education climates. And Mastercard plans to introduce 1 million micro and small businesses to electronic payment systems and bring 5 million consumers from the three countries into the financial system.

The Biden administration wants Congress to approve $4 billion over four years, including $860 million for the budget year that begins Friday, for a diverse group of projects including jobs programs, law enforcement training, support for victims of rape and domestic violence, fish farms and COVID-19 response. Much of the plan calls for bypassing governments and working with outside groups, though it’s often impossible to find enough of them to manage money at such a large scale.

As the Biden administration funnels money into such programs in Central America and seeks to boost private investment there, it is confronting a growing challenge: corrupt governments in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Such corruption could stymie the administration’s endeavors in the region, experts say, by pulling money from the economy, breeding cynicism and discouraging people from starting businesses.

President Trump largely ignored corruption in exchange for security, and then withheld aid in 2019 in an attempt to gain further leverage on immigration enforcement. Some advocates and experts say that Harris needs to speak out more aggressively and that the administration has not done enough to punish corrupt actors.

The Biden administration insists it will not trade democratic values for enforcement, but balancing the two almost always requires a trade-off, foreign policy experts say.

When Harris went to Guatemala in June, she pressed President Alejandro Giammattei to protect independent prosecutors fighting corruption while lobbying him on immigration enforcement. The administration won cooperation with resettling Guatemalans who are deported and in preventing large caravans from gathering, according to a senior State Department official.

But six weeks after Harris’ trip, Guatemala’s attorney general fired the lead anti-corruption prosecutor, Juan Francisco Sandoval, who has since fled to Washington. The New York Times reported that he gathered evidence allegedly implicating Giammattei in a bribery scheme.

Harris has also not spoken with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who has been implicated in drug trafficking, or Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who has purged courts and cleared the way to ending presidential term limits, underscoring the difficulty in finding trustworthy partners to rebuild those countries’ institutions.

Experts in the region say the next few months are crucial if the United States has any hope of reversing the three countries’ further slide from democratic, accountable governance. But they are concerned that the Biden administration’s inability to win reforms, coupled with political pressure at home, will create a recipe for giving up.

“I’m worried migration trumps everything else,” said Eric L. Olson, who co-wrote a book with the Biden administration’s top envoy to the region critiquing similar efforts made during the Obama administration.

Olson said that Americans’ focus on migration continues a long history of imposing their own agenda on the region, a practice that peaked during the Cold War with support for violent autocrats and bloody coups.

“We don’t have a long-term goal,” said Olson. “We’re constantly solving problems and then we walk away when we think we solved the problems, or we get bored with the region and we walk away.”

Biden administration officials say they will not give up on the region, nor turn a blind eye to corruption. Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken added seven officials in Guatemala and El Salvador to a list of people banned from entering the United States for “undermining democracy and obstructing investigations into acts of corruption.” Among them was Maria Consuelo Porras Argueta De Porres, Guatemala’s attorney general, who dismissed Sandoval, the former anti-corruption prosecutor.

Several administration officials, including Harris’ national security advisor, have met directly with Sandoval at the White House. But he did not get a meeting with Harris or Biden, at least publicly.

Manfredo Marroquín, an anti-corruption activist in Guatemala who met with Harris when she visited the country, said he is not optimistic things will turn around. He sees increased poverty and lower nutrition all around him, he said, and Guatemalans feel “ripped off” by their government.

People with resources want to get their kids out of the country, and those without any money are even more desperate to leave, he says.

Though frustrated that conditions have worsened since Harris visited, he wants more, not less, U.S. engagement.

He drew a contrast with the Biden administration’s messy exit from Afghanistan, noting Americans can afford to look away from a country on the other side of the globe. But if they ignore a nearby one, he said, “you will have 1 million people at the border.”