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Guatemala's president says U.S. should invest more to deter migration

Guatemala's president weighs in on migration
Full interview: Guatemala's president on why migrants are coming to U.S., Trump and more 17:09

Washington — Nearly three years ago, Vice President Kamala Harris stood alongside the then-president of Guatemala in his palace and delivered a message to would-be migrants: "Do not come" to the United States. 

Her pleas didn't work. Since June 2021, when Harris made those remarks, U.S. officials have tallied 709,305 encounters with migrants from Guatemala along the southern border, according to government data. More than 2 million migrants of all nationalities are expected to be apprehended along the border by the end of this fiscal year in September, which would be the third straight year of sustained foot traffic across the span.

Asked this week whether migrants have heeded Harris' request from three years ago, Guatemala's new president, Bernardo Arévalo, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Well, I don't know. You do the numbers."

Arévalo, who took office in January, came to Washington this week to meet with President Biden and Harris as the White House hopes to demonstrate progress on addressing border security and immigration, issues that remain top voter concerns. 

He told CBS News the president was "enchanting" and "very warm" in a brief Oval Office exchange captured by White House photographers. But in longer meetings with Harris, Arévalo said he told her Guatemala needs more U.S. economic investment — not just taxpayer-funded American relief — in order to encourage people to stay put.

"Cooperation is not sending money. Cooperation can be by creating conditions in which we can invite you to invest in Guatemala and establish factories, work that can begin to produce and create jobs. That's fundamentally what we are most interested in," he told CBS News.

Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo and Vice President Kamala Harris during a meeting in the Vice President's Ceremonial Office in Washington, D.C., on Monday, March 25, 2024.
Guatemalan President Bernardo Arévalo and Vice President Kamala Harris during a meeting in the Vice President's Ceremonial Office in Washington, D.C., on Monday, March 25, 2024. Ron Sachs/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"We have to work to allow people, what we call, 'The right to stay.' People have a right to remain in their places. People need to find opportunities," Arévalo added.

Mr. Biden tasked Harris with addressing the "root causes" of migration early in their administration as the number of illegal border crossings spiked after four years of hardline border security policy under former President Donald Trump. But the Biden administration is now anticipating another busy spring along the U.S.-Mexico border, and officials tell CBS News the president is still considering taking executive action to curb the crossings if Congress fails to enact a bipartisan plan negotiated by senators last year.

As she personally wades back into the politically tricky issue, Harris on Monday announced another $170 million in economic development and security assistance for Guatemala. A public-private partnership launched by the administration also announced plans Monday for another $1 billion worth of private investment in the country, on top of roughly $5.2 billion already committed.

Arévalo welcomed the investments as a long-term solution to preventing his country's citizens from leaving and signaled he'd prefer to see that kind of cooperation continue. But he also did not discount the possibility of working with a second Trump administration. 

"We are looking forward to working with whoever wins in the next election to support and work so that our citizens that are residents in the United States enjoy full rights," Arévalo said. 

Asked whether he thought Trump's preference for border walls works, he said, "I think that history shows they don't. What we need to look for is integrated solutions to a problem that is far more complex than just putting a wall to try to contain."

"Corruption is the most urgent problem"

Arévalo, 65, is a former diplomat and sociologist and the son of the late former Guatemalan president Juan José Arévalo, who was the country's first democratically elected president from 1945 to 1951.

The younger Arévalo took office in January after running an underdog campaign on an anti-corruption platform and defeating several better-known, better-funded opponents backed by the country's political and economic elite. His victory effectively put an end to the country's long standing conservative political establishment. But rivals who control the country's judiciary continue to try prosecuting him and his political party, accusing them of rigging the results of last year's elections — accusations he strongly disputes.

"We believe that corruption is the most urgent problem," Arévalo told CBS News. "But the most important problem is development. But if we do not fight corruption, we are not going to be able to get the development that we need so that people can flourish and stay."

As he tries to revamp Guatemala's government and restore democratic norms, Arévalo said he supports the release of journalist José Rubén Zamora, who was sentenced to six years in prison in 2023 on money laundering charges under the former President Alejandro Giammattei's administration. 

Zamora's newspaper, "El Periódico," published countless stories about corruption within the Giammattei administration. It was forced to shut down after he was detained, due to a lack of resources and its journalists fleeing the country for fear of prosecution. Zamora's case has earned international attention and condemnation from international journalists' rights groups.

"We would hope for him to be released tomorrow," Arévalo said of Zamora.

On his Inauguration Day, Arévalo said he sent the head of the country's prison system to "transform" the torturous conditions under which Zamora was being held. While the president supports the journalist's liberation, Arévalo could not specify a release date for the detained journalist because does not control Guatemala's judiciary under the Guatemalan Constitution.

"We know that the accusations are just not serious," he said. "But we cannot interfere with the Court of Justice, so we don't know."

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