By Steve Holland and Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Vice President Kamala Harris said on Wednesday she intends to visit Mexico and Guatemala soon as part of her plan to use diplomatic efforts to slow migration to the U.S.-Mexican border.
President Joe Biden, who has moved away from predecessor Donald Trump's hardline immigration approach, gave Harris the job of leading U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central America's Northern Triangle countries - Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala - to stop migrants from crossing into the United States.
Harris spoke to reporters on Wednesday while participating in a virtual roundtable with experts who offered recommendations on the region, focusing on the core causes of migration in the Northern Triangle.
"Our focus is to deal with the root causes, and I am looking forward to traveling, hopefully as my first trip, to the Northern Triangle, stopping in Mexico and then going to Guatemala," Harris said.
Participants in the meeting included Nancy McEldowney, national security adviser to Harris; Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute think tank; and Lisa Haugaard, co-director of the Latin America Working Group nonprofit advocacy group.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said on Wednesday his government was likely to reach agreements over migration with Harris during her planned visit to the country, but he added there were no deals yet on the table.
"(The U.S. government) will analyze our proposals and the agreements will come from there," he said in a statement, noting a meeting date had yet to be determined.
The United States in March witnessed the most unaccompanied children attempting to cross the border since such record-keeping began in 2010. Overall, more than 172,000 migrants were caught at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, according to an administration official. Of those, roughly 168,000 were picked up by border patrol agents between ports of entry - the highest monthly tally since March 2001.
The United States must figure out how to bring about economic development in the Northern Triangle countries to curb immigration, Harris said. Most of the region's people do not want to flee their homes but many do so because there are no opportunities to meet their needs, she added.
Republican lawmakers in Washington have questioned why Harris was planning to visit Mexico and Guatemala when she has yet to visit the southern U.S. border.
"It has been 3 weeks since President Biden appointed VP Harris to oversee the border," House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said on Twitter. "Since then, the crisis has only continued to spiral out of control."
At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, Ricardo Zuniga, a U.S. special envoy to Central America, said the recent increase in migrant arrivals was part of a "recurring pattern" driven by crime and poor economic conditions in the Northern Triangle.
Zuniga said the Biden administration was working to help social welfare agencies in the region to identify unaccompanied children traveling with U.S.-bound caravans and other groups to stop them from taking the "dangerous journey" north.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Nandita Bose in Washington; Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; Writing by Nandita Bose; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)