MEXICO CITY — Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday capped her first foreign trip, meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to discuss economic cooperation as well as joint efforts to manage migration and security along their shared border.
The two leaders signed an agreement in the national palace that reiterates a commitment to deter migration north by addressing its causes — poverty, persecution and corruption in Central America.
“We are very pleased to have her here and we will touch on that subject but always addressing the fundamental root causes,” Mr. López Obrador said when asked by a reporter if he would work with the United States on border security.
The visit concluded a high-stakes trip for Ms. Harris to Mexico and Guatemala, where she had traveled on Monday.
She had been tapped by President Biden to be the administration’s emissary for one of its more complex and politically volatile issues: improving conditions in Central America and deterring migration to the U.S.-Mexico border.
For weeks, Ms. Harris has faced criticism from Republicans for not visiting the United States’ southwest border, where an increasing number of lone migrant children and teenagers are arriving. She has also tried to manage the expectations of Democrats for Mr. Biden to fulfill his campaign promise of taking a compassionate approach to asylum-seekers at the border.
The trip pushed Ms. Harris to clearly define the role she will play in the region, especially as the face of the Biden administration’s policy on managing migration from Central America.
Ms. Harris’s stance over the past two days has revealed a moderate approach that seeks to project the perception that the border is under control, even if it means turning away the very asylum seekers she has said the United States is committed to helping in the long term.
On Monday, in Guatemala, Ms. Harris had delivered a blunt message to potential migrants on Monday.
“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,” Ms. Harris said in Guatemala City, standing feet away from the Guatemalan president, Alejandro Giammattei.
Her stance ignited criticism from immigration advocates and Democrats.
“This is disappointing to see,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, said on Twitter. “First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival.”
But over two days of meeting with the presidents of Guatemala and Mexico, Ms. Harris also detailed a range of U.S. efforts intended to improve prospects and quality of life in the region by fomenting sustainable jobs, increasing security, supporting anti-corruption efforts and generally helping raise the quality of life, making it more feasible for would-be migrants to stay home.
On Tuesday, in a meeting with Mr. López Obrador, Ms. Harris gave details, saying the administration would issue loans for affordable housing, infrastructure development and efforts to grow cacao and coffee, according to a statement from Symone Sanders, a top adviser and spokeswoman.
The United States will also invest $130 million over three years to support labor protections for Mexican workers, and provide forensic training to Mexican officials to help find tens of thousands of missing people.
“He and I spent a significant amount of time together one on one,” Ms. Harris said of Mr. López Obrador, characterizing their conversations as “very directed, candid.”
In Guatemala on Monday, Ms. Harris committed to supporting the country’s anti-corruption prosecutors and also pledged to use U.S. aid to create more jobs and address security concerns in Central America. She also touted a resource center where migrants can learn about refugee and asylum programs that do not require a journey to the border.
The Biden administration has continued to embrace an emergency rule instituted by President Donald J. Trump that empowered border agents to rapidly turn away migrants without providing them a chance to apply for asylum. Put in place after the coronavirus outbreak, the order justifies the expulsions as a health measure intended to stop the virus from spreading.
Under U.S. immigration law, migrants are entitled to ask for protection once they step on American soil.
While Mr. Biden has said only unaccompanied minors are exempt from the border policy, the administration has at times struggled to quickly return migrant families who cross the Texas border back into the hands of Mexican authorities because of a change in Mexican law and limited shelter capacity south of the border. The United States has been in talks with Mexico this year to find a remedy.
The continued use of the rule, known as Title 42, has prompted criticism from immigration lawyers, former officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the administration’s own medical consultants.
Ms. Harris, too, once questioned the legality of the border policy.
As a senator, she signed a letter with fellow Democrats that accused the Trump administration of “misinterpreting its limited authorities” under Title 42 by using the rule to turn away asylum seekers at the border.
The Biden administration has also asked Mexico to increase the number of security personnel at the Mexico-Guatemala border in an effort to stop migrants before they can reach the United States. The United States has also pledged to send hundreds of thousands of vaccines to Mexico and Central America.