January 27, 2022

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Briefing with Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zuniga on Ongoing Diplomatic Efforts to Address the Root Causes of Irregular Migration from Central America

35 min read

Ricardo Zuniga, Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle

Via Teleconference

MS PORTER: Hi, good evening. This is Department – State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter. Thank you so much for joining the call this evening. Special Envoy Ricardo Zuniga is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service. He has decades of experience with the State Department and is now serving as a special envoy for the Northern Triangle. Special Envoy Zuniga is working in coordination with Vice President Harris to address the root causes of irregular migration and leading the U.S. diplomatic efforts with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico on these issues. He’s joining us here today on the record to answer all of your questions. And as a reminder, today’s briefing is embargoed until the conclusion of the briefing.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to you, Special Envoy.

MR ZUNIGA: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. So I have a brief opening statement, and then I look forward to your questions. So over the past few weeks since mid-March when I joined, I have traveled to Central America and had a series of meetings with leaders from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras about working together to alleviate the conditions that are driving mass irregular migration to Mexico and the United States. While we agreed that we have a lot of work ahead of us, I believe we already have a good foundation with partners in all the countries in Central America and in Mexico.

To be clear, when I’m talking about leaders in this context, it doesn’t only include government leaders. Also, very importantly, it refers broadly to civil society, from social issue groups to members of the private sector, members of the media. We’ve discussed important issues at hand, including fundamental freedoms and dealing with the acute crises that are driving so much of the migration today. We discussed improving the current conditions and the cooperation needed to reduce irregular migration, but also, importantly, we really talked about what we needed to do together to establish the favorable conditions for economic and social growth to address one of those main drivers of irregular migration from the region.

So what we’re really focused on is trying to create enabling conditions that are going to allow societies to thrive. Very clearly, these large flows of irregular migrants aren’t just something that happens in one year and now there have been – it has been happening, and happening cyclically year after year over the last decade. We’ve seen that the challenges in Central America really do present challenges in the United States. When something goes wrong in Central America, we feel it in the United States. We are very closely connected as societies. The truth is we’re very closely linked.

And so our commitment has to be not just to deal with the acute drivers of migration, but really dealing with the short-, medium-, and long-term problems if we want to see systemic and sustainable change, which, really, that’s our objective. And thanks to the leadership of the Vice President, we’ve organized ourselves as a government to make cooperation stronger and more of a reality, a tangible reality for governments in the region. We’re also addressing structural problems that have affected so many lives in Central America, whether they regard insecurity or lack of opportunities or corruption.

Our goal is to work with the people of Central America to create safe, prosperous, democratic societies where citizens can build their own lives with dignity. At the center of our efforts, again, is this fight against corruption and impunity and fostering the conditions that provide for growth, especially in the vital small- and medium-sized business sector which drives – in which so many people are employed in the region.

With that, I look forward to your questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, again —

MS PORTER: All right. Let’s go to the line of Christina Ruffini, please.

QUESTION: Good evening.

OPERATOR: And Christina, your line is open.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. Ricardo, thanks for taking the time. Just to start out, I know you are the special envoy to the Northern Triangle, but I’m wondering if the State Department is considering doing away with that term. We’ve heard from the countries themselves they’re pushing back against this saying they each have their own identities. In your opinion, is the term helpful for making policy to the region or has it – has it outlived its usefulness?

MR ZUNIGA: So this is something that we certainly have gotten that feedback. Governments are dealt with as a – just as a matter of substance, we do deal with them individually. Each of the countries have particular characteristics and particular challenges that they’re dealing with. I think it’s appropriate to focus on these three countries in northern Central America as a – as a – and in particular from the U.S. perspective, because that’s the source of irregular migration that is – that is reaching the Southwest border in large numbers. But we do understand the context is Mexico and all of Central America, and so we try looking at the – at the issue that way.

I certainly am sensitive to concerns about countries feeling like they are lumped together. That’s not how we’re approaching this. There are some common challenges and there are also challenges that have to be dealt with at a regional level, but we do in our work with governments deal with them as individual governments and don’t try to treat them all as if it were the same set of circumstances.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson.

QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Special Envoy.

MR ZUNIGA: Hey, Tracy.

QUESTION: You – hi.  You seem to be putting a lot of eggs in the Guatemala basket.  I say that because if – correct me if I’m wrong, but he was the only president you met with, and he is the only president that Kamala Harris has spoken to and she’s going to do this virtual summit on Monday.  And yet Guatemala arguably is just as corrupt as the other two countries, and it was Guatemala that killed the CICIG.  So why so much faith in Guatemala?  Thanks.

MR ZUNIGA: So the – right now the first country that I visited with – at that point with the southwest border coordinator, Roberta Jacobson, and with the senior director for the Western Hemisphere at NSC, Juan Gonzalez – it was Mexico. Mexico has really been our key partner in our efforts to manage migration. So in – the short version is that we, at this early date, have really focused on the countries that are at the center of this movement of people. Honduras certainly is the other main source, but Guatemala and Mexico are the main sources of irregular migration right now. And we’ve put a lot of focus on those, understanding that this is going to have to require a systemic approach.

I did travel also to El Salvador. I have engaged with the foreign minister of Honduras. In each of the countries, we’ve established working groups that are focused on the main lines of action that we’re going to be dealing with in this. And certainly one is migration management, but also on issues related to governance and corruption, on issues related to security, and on issues related to economic development. Those are the other areas of work.

So, again, these are areas of mutual interest. We work with all of the three countries in northern Central America and in the Northern Triangle and in – and very closely with Mexico. And at all times we’re prepared to collaborate with those who want to work with us on a broad agenda, including on governance issues.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Conor Finnegan.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. The White House implied earlier this month that the administration had reached new agreements with the three countries about border security, and some of them pushed back on that, saying any additional border security that they deployed – guards, things like that – happened before the administration even took office. So can you clarify whether or not you’ve reached any new agreements? And then, if so, what are you doing to ensure that people who have legitimate asylum claims can still make their journey north to make those claims? Thank you.

MR ZUNIGA: Thank you for that. And it is very important to point out here that we don’t have new agreements to announce. What we have are – and they’re correct. We have a long history of collaboration with the region and on trying to manage migration. What we have seen, very importantly, is that with the administration’s focus on collaborative migration approaches is a greater level of cooperation, including on issues of protection.

It’s not just the United States. When I was in Guatemala, we and the Guatemalan authorities – the Guatemalan Government hosted a meeting with the major international organizations that are our main partners in the region: IOM and certainly UNHCR and others – UNICEF – and others who have an important role to play, including on protection. And so in the case of Mexico, we also have a very strong relationship on matters related to supporting international organizations as they work with the Mexican Government. It’s correct that governments are responding to their own legitimate border security needs (inaudible).

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Michelle Lee, please.

QUESTION: This is a question —

MR ZUNIGA: — in Central America – excuse me.

QUESTION: Go ahead.

MR ZUNIGA: Okay. And collaboration with countries in Central America has been to ensure that they have protection mechanisms that don’t require people to have to move all the way to the U.S. border to feel like they can – they can access at least protection screening. So that is the – that’s the other major effort that’s underway (inaudible).

QUESTION: Hello? This is Michelle Lee.

OPERATOR: Sir, your line cut out.

QUESTION: Oh, can I ask my question now?

MS PORTER: Hold tight with us one quick second. Thank you so much for your patience. We’re going to try to get him back on the line.

MR ZUNIGA: Hello?

MS PORTER: Hello, Special Envoy?

MR ZUNIGA: Hi. Yes, this is Ricardo. I’m so sorry. Something must have happened with my line dropping.

MS PORTER: Oh, glad to have you back. Now, we were on Michelle Lee. If you’re back, Michelle Lee, feel free to ask your question.

MR ZUNIGA: Michelle?

QUESTION: Okay, hello. Yes, it’s Michelle. Thanks for the —

MR ZUNIGA: Hey, so sorry.

QUESTION: It’s okay. Two questions. First, you’ve spoken about the need to provide political cover and technical support in order to help create sustained change from the inside of the countries, and I was wondering if you can talk some more about what the diplomatic efforts on governance looks like, and what realistically can be done to support those internal efforts.

And secondly, you may have been addressing this earlier when your – when you dropped off, but what sort of enforcement mechanisms is the U.S. considering? What are the options that the administration is willing to take, like trying to get the governments to tighten their own borders or impose new internal controls?

MR ZUNIGA: Certainly. So on the first one, on governance, you’re right; addressing corruption is at the center of what the Biden administration has focused on in seeking to create those enabling conditions for broad-based improvement in Central America. So what that means in practice is two things. First is supporting those within the countries – and that’s civil society as well as public servants – who are involved in efforts to promote transparency and combat corruption and impunity. So that can mean some of the ongoing work that we’ve had in support of prosecutors and judges involved in this work as well as direct support to organizations like the CNA in Honduras and others that are civil society organizations that have a particular role in supporting the work against corruption. So that’s one portion of it.

We are also looking at a – putting together an anti-corruption task force that is going to involve the Department of Justice and other U.S. agencies, with the support of the Department of State, to focus on particular cases involving corruption as well as enhancing the capacity of prosecutors, investigators, and others to actually move forward with cases.

I think it’s really important here to underline that the United States, we were disappointed with the lapse of CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras and believe those were setbacks in efforts to promote transparency and combat impunity. Both those entities had very strong popular support, and it’s important for the United States to show that we’re on the side of those who are victims of corruption and not on the side of those who are involved in corruption. So part of this is demanding that accountability that the citizens of Central America demand. We are backing up and supporting that effort.

Now, in terms of migration enforcement, this is – the reality is that we have to work with not just ourselves but with countries in the region to ensure that they have the means to enforce their laws and to be able to monitor their borders kind of in line with their – with sort of normal government activity. And so that involves working with the border and immigration officials in each country. It means increasing information sharing and having a more active collaboration among the five countries involved here – United States, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – on managed migration.

That also includes – and these go together – ensuring that we are working to create legal pathways for migration and working to build protection for those vulnerable populations into migration systems across the region.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to Stef Knight.

QUESTION: Hi, Special Envoy. Thanks for having this call. And my name is actually Stef Kight, just – it’s a normal mistake, but no N.

I was wondering if you could speak to kind of the aid portion of the tactics with Central America. How much is actually available to invest in these countries? And is there a timeline where you all are hoping to be able to really start pouring actual money, resources into some of these short-term and long-term goals?

MR ZUNIGA: So there is a certain amount of funding left from prior fiscal years, but the administration just put forward an initial request for $861 million to – that will be shared in greater detail next month in terms of how that – how we’re planning to allocate that funding. It’s an initial payment on the $4 billion over four years that President Biden announced before coming into office.

And the assistance is going to be focused in three areas: in promoting governance, better, improved governance, so combating corruption, but also promoting transparency and access to information on the part of citizens and working with the private sector to ensure that they also have – are operating on a level playing field.

The second area is going to be on promoting transparent – excuse me – prosperity. So that means promoting economic development. The private sector is going to have an even bigger role than U.S. assistance in that regard, but what we can do is help create the conditions where both domestic and foreign investment can help create more jobs and more opportunities in the region.

And finally, on security, that’s the last area that we’re going to be focused on. And there, it’s not just the issue of ensuring – combating the very high levels of violence that continue to plague the region, but also creating systems and judicial systems and supporting judicial systems that can offer justice to people in the region. We think that in terms of assistance, it’s important to, on the immediate basis, deal with some of the humanitarian issues that are driving migration on an acute basis. That means the lingering impacts from the hurricane, that means in particular the impact of the COVID pandemic on not just the health of Central American societies but also on the economies, and so helping to put those back on their feet are early priorities.

And then we’re also beginning to lay the groundwork for longer-term structural change by essentially forming strong partnerships in civil society with the private sector and with governments, but as well as with other donors so that we’re spreading the burden but also dividing some of this responsibility and ensuring that we’re not overlapping too much. So increased coordination is an important part of that longer-term work.

MS PORTER: Let’s go to the line of Jordan Fabian.

QUESTION: Thanks, Special Envoy. I wanted to ask you about the other side of the anti-corruption coin. You’ve talked about ways that the United States might try to incentivize governments to crack down on corruption, but what about – what is the United States going to do if these governments are obstinate? Are you guys considering sanctions against officials who are involved in corruption or anything even stronger than that? Thanks.

MR ZUNIGA: Yes, we are, and in fact, we have a mandate from the U.S. Congress to develop lists of officials who are involved in corruption and to propose actions against them. That can range from using State Department authorities to revoke visas of people involved in corruption and their family members. It can also mean working through the Department of the Treasury and Department of Justice to designate individuals who are involved in high levels of corruption. We’ve got the Global Magnitsky Act that we intend to make use of. Absolutely, the work against corruption involves not just incentives, but doing what we think is necessary and using the tools that we have from Congress to demonstrate our opposition to particular individuals and organizations involved in this.

Now, they can be involved not only in organized crime activity or money laundering but also in acts of corruption, because we think that corruption is one of the main drivers of instability in Central America. And again, we want to demonstrate that we are on the side of the victims of corruption and determined to act against those involved in corruption.

MS PORTER: Let’s take one final question from James Traub.

OPERATOR: My apologies. One moment here. James – yeah, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, can you hear me?

OPERATOR: Yeah.

MR ZUNIGA: We can.

QUESTION: Okay. Okay. So one of the things you mentioned while you were in the region was the hope to expand the use of temporary seasonal visas for people coming from the Northern Triangle. And just a few days ago that number was announced at 6,000, which is a modest number and a modest increase over the existing number. And this gave people a lot of concern, I think, especially coming after Biden’s reversed announcement of the refugee cap, that the administration was getting cold feet on some of these issues. So could you address both the seasonal visa issue and that broader question?

MR ZUNIGA: So on the seasonal visa issues, we are looking at as many methods of creating legal pathways for people to come to United States. Labor is obviously an important part of that because so many – I mean, such a large percentage of the people coming irregularly are coming to try to work in the United States. And so clearly, we want to be able to use not just H-2Bs – that number was H-2B visas – but look at other possibilities as well. And the overall expansion was right around 20,000 additional H-2B visas and with 6,000 set aside for Central America.

There is an issue, which is that when you have – when you’re expanding seasonal labor visas to – or expanding them in a country, typically there requires some work at the beginning to establish connections between employees and employers in the United States. So there’s also the concern about, at least in this immediate phase, not designating so many for Central America that we aren’t able to fill them immediately or very quickly and then leave some visas on the table. We want these to be used. That’s for the capped visas.

H-2As, which are not capped, are also – those have their own complexities because most people in the H-2A program are Mexican nationals that have a longstanding relationship with employers in United States. It takes some work and time to develop those relationships, but those are two methods. We are looking at whatever legal methods we have available under the Immigration Nationality Act to regularize labor flows as much as possible. We understand that’s a part of the formula.

On the larger issue, I think that for one thing, it’s important to note that the entire migration system has been under intense strain. President Biden submitted comprehensive immigration reform proposals precisely because there’s an understanding that the current system hasn’t provided the speed, regularity, and access that the country needs. And we want to ensure that as many people have as much access as needed to legal pathways. We want to incentivize that. But there was enormous strain on the system, and it is taking time to put it – to kind of reconstitute an effective system, and for example, to re-initiate asylum processing on the – at the speed at which we would like to have it.

So this is a – it is a difficult time to be taking on the challenges related to migration. And in addition to that, there is a lot of – many of the resources of the U.S. Government are dedicated right now to dealing with the situation at the southwest border. So there is a strain on resources, there is a commitment to try to promote legal pathways as much as possible, and certainly there is a commitment to use the tools that we have available to ensure that we’re able to promote improved access for labor and temporary labor purposes in United States and match employers with potential employees in Central America.

MS PORTER: All right, Special Envoy, I actually – I said that was the last question, but I actually have one last alibi since you dropped on the line when Conor Finnegan was wanting to ask you about —

MR ZUNIGA: Totally fair.

MS PORTER: — U.S. making asylum claims. And so are you able to just provide a little bit of context on that? Can you provide those details on U.S. claims – on making U.S. asylum claims in other countries?

MR ZUNIGA: Certainly. Do you mind – is he still on the line? I just wanted to hear the question again because I thought – I want to make sure I recalled it correctly.

MS PORTER: So he is – I don’t believe he – hold on. Let me just clarify one quick second. Operator, are you able to see if Conor Finnegan is on the line? I don’t believe he got back on.

OPERATOR: Yeah, I’ve got him now.

MS PORTER: Oh, great. Okay. There you go, Conor.

OPERATOR: Conor, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing that. And I appreciate the follow-up, Jalina. I just was asking what the administration is doing to ensure that folks who have legitimate asylum claims can make those claims. President Biden had mentioned allowing folks to make them while still in a third country. So any update on all of that? Thank you.

MR ZUNIGA: Certainly. Certainly. Yes, this – access to protection is an important part of the work that we’re doing to promote collaborative migration management in the region. So the – our main partner in doing that is UNHCR, and the counterparts in countries in the case of Mexico, for example, COMAR is the partner in that effort. And what we’re focused on doing is ensuring that – it’s a recognition that – we’re focused on migration to the United States for the clear reason that it’s us and our border, but in fact there is – there are mass movements all across the Americas, from Venezuela and throughout South America.

And within Central America there’s quite a bit of movement from – by Nicaraguans into Costa Rica, for example, that strains resources there and into other countries. And so what we’re trying to do is help build up the capacity of both the national migration systems but also international organizations in – working in Central America to provide some level of security and protection for those who have the need. Now, in some cases there will be individuals who are found to have a status that would enable them to come to the United States, but in other cases there might be protection available closer to home and in the region.

And that’s something that we do, and Costa Rica is a – is certainly a very important partner in that regard, but we’re working with a number of countries to ensure that it’s – that’s it’s – there are other countries other than the United States that are also involved in this. So yes, that’s an important part of our work, and the State Department has the lead in doing so through our Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and its relationships with UNHCR, IOM, and other international organizations.

MS PORTER: All right. Thank you all for joining the call this Earth Day. With that, the embargo is lifted. Have a good evening.

MR ZUNIGA: Thank you very much.

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    What GAO Found Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico): Puerto Rico remains in default. It has finalized three debt restructuring agreements or settlements to date, pursuant to three distinct legal approaches, and it is using one of these approaches to restructure additional debt. Puerto Rico's total public debt outstanding as a share of Gross National Product increased slightly from 93 to 95 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the most recent year for which audited financial data are available. Puerto Rico's total revenue remained consistent between fiscal years 2016 and 2017 at about $30.0 billion and the territory operated with a $3.1 billion deficit in fiscal year 2017. Puerto Rico's future capacity for debt repayment depends primarily on the outcomes of the ongoing debt restructuring process, its ability to generate sustained economic growth, and the disbursement of federal funding. American Samoa: American Samoa's total public debt outstanding as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased from 19 to 37 percent between fiscal years 2017 and 2019. This increase was partially due to a series of general revenue bonds issued in late 2018 to fund infrastructure projects. During this period, American Samoa's yearly total revenue fluctuated but was 24 percent higher in fiscal year 2019 compared to fiscal year 2017, and the territory had a surplus of $34.0 million in fiscal year 2019. Continued reliance on a single industry and significant pension liabilities remain fiscal risks in American Samoa. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI): CNMI's total public debt outstanding as a share of GDP remained constant at about 8 percent between fiscal years 2017 and 2019. During this period, CNMI's yearly total revenue fluctuated but was 27 percent higher in fiscal year 2019 compared to fiscal year 2017, and the territory had a deficit of $33.3 million in fiscal year 2019. Worsening economic conditions and significant pension liabilities may affect CNMI's future debt repayment capacity. COVID-19 has hurt tourism, CNMI's primary industry. Guam: Guam's total public debt outstanding as a share of GDP decreased slightly from 44 to 42 percent between fiscal years 2017 and 2019. Guam's total revenue increased 7 percent during this period and the territory had a surplus of $112.6 million in fiscal year 2019. Guam faces fiscal risks such as COVID-19's negative impact on tourism, Guam's primary industry, and significant pension liabilities. United States Virgin Islands (USVI): USVI's total public debt outstanding as a share of GDP increased slightly from 68 to 69 percent of GDP between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, the most recent year for which audited financial data are available. During this period, USVI's yearly total revenue fluctuated but was 36 percent higher in fiscal year 2018 compared to fiscal year 2016, and the territory had a deficit of $29.4 million in fiscal year 2018. USVI's capacity for future debt repayment may be affected by its ability to create economic growth and its ability to manage its pension liabilities and address the pending insolvency of its public pension system. USVI's ability to create economic growth may be hampered by the adverse impact of COVID-19 on tourism, USVI's primary industry. Why GAO Did This Study The five permanently inhabited U.S. territories–Puerto Rico, USVI, American Samoa, CNMI, and Guam–borrow through financial markets. Puerto Rico, in particular, has amassed large amounts of debt, and began to default on debt payments in 2015. In 2017, hurricanes caused widespread damage in Puerto Rico and USVI. Further, in 2018, American Samoa, CNMI, and Guam experienced typhoons and cyclones. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the territories' economies is not yet fully known. In June 2016, Congress passed and the President signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act. It contains a provision for GAO to review the public debt of the five territories every 2 years. In this report, for each of the five territories, GAO updates (1) trends in public debt and its composition; (2) trends in revenue and its composition, and in overall financial condition; and (3) the fiscal risk factors that affect each territory's ability to repay public debt. GAO analyzed the territories' single audit reports for fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019, as available; reviewed relevant documentation and analyses; and interviewed officials from the territories' governments, federal agencies, and industry groups. For more information, contact Yvonne D. Jones at (202) 512-6806 or jonesy@gao.gov or David Gootnick at (202) 512-3149 or gootnickd@gao.gov.
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  • Former Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent and Task Force Officer Convicted of Conspiracy and Conversion of Property
    In Crime News
    A former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent and a former DEA task force officer were convicted Tuesday by a federal jury in New Orleans, Louisiana, in connection with a long-running scheme to steal personal property and money from individuals who had been arrested.
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Judiciary Informs Congress of Its Opposition to Bill
    In U.S Courts
    The Judiciary has informed Congress that it opposes the proposed Judiciary Accountability Act. In a letter to key lawmakers today, Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, secretary of the Judicial Conference of the United States, wrote that the bill “fails to recognize the robust safeguards that have been in place within the Judiciary to protect Judiciary employees, including law clerks, from wrongful conduct in the workplace, including protections against discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and abusive conduct.”
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  • Condemning the Reported Attack Targeting the Residence of Prime Minister Kadhimi
    In Crime Control and Security News
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