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Guatemalan Ambassador To The U.S Weighs In On America's Plan To Help Country

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Since the beginning of the year, the number of Guatemalan migrants attempting to cross the southern border has more than doubled, and many of them are unaccompanied children. In response, Vice President Kamala Harris announced this week that the U.S. will help train members of the Guatemalan Border Patrol as well as send money to pay for shelters to help migrants transition back to their home communities.

To talk about this plan, I'm joined by the Guatemalan ambassador to the United States, Alfonso Quinonez. Thank you for being here.

ALFONSO QUINONEZ: Thank you for inviting me.

CORNISH: First, I want to start with this announcement about the Guatemalan Border Patrol. The U.S. is going to send something like 16 representatives from the Department of Homeland Security. What is the plan, as far as you know, for once they get there?

QUINONEZ: They are going to be with us, supporting our efforts to secure our borders. It's going to be technical assistance, the one that we are going to be receiving on technical advice, so our capacities to secure our borders are enhanced. So that's the general idea.

CORNISH: What are you looking for advice on? So what would - what is involved in technical support?

QUINONEZ: We have a large border between Guatemala and Mexico, and also we have a large border with our neighbors to the south, Honduras and El Salvador. And what we are hoping to achieve is more security so there won't be some of the complications that you have when the border is a porous border. So the idea is to receive support from them in terms of technical support, as I said before, but also training to - for our agents so we are more effective in securing the borders.

CORNISH: Do you think heightened security will actually stop people from attempting to cross the border? I mean, has that really worked in years past?

QUINONEZ: You know, the focus is not just on the issue of people crossing the border, but there are other issues related to narco-trafficking and goods that go back and forth. So it's a multipronged approach, not just solely focused on that. But following on your question, we believe that the way to address the migration issues is tackling the root causes, which in our case in Guatemala is more related to the lack of opportunities.

CORNISH: I want to come back to that in a moment because I know the Biden administration has underscored that as well, but I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about human smugglers. What is Guatemala doing to crack down on that problem? And do you have the resources to do it?

QUINONEZ: That's a very important point, and I'm glad that you raised it because that is one of the efforts that we are undertaking. We want to get the coyotes, the smugglers, out of business because they are the ones enthusing the people to take this very dangerous trek through Mexico into the United States, and we have seen the dangers that exist in taking this very dangerous journey. So going after the coyotes is a very important component, and our institutions are working very hard in order to locate them and also charge them with the crimes of human smuggling, and also because they have taken some of the messaging, and they have tweaked it in a way that presents the situation different as the situation is.

CORNISH: And by messaging, are you following up on something we heard from Guatemala's president? I think they were speaking to a U.S. news organization where they implied - where he implied that President Biden's messages of compassion - he argues that they've used his message and turned it around to tell people, now is the time they will receive you. Let's go. And he said this to ABC News. Is that the belief in Guatemala by the government, that some of this is driven by messaging from the White House?

QUINONEZ: Well, you know, one hears those messages in terms of a more humane approach to migration, which we welcome very, very much. But these people that are using every technique that they may have to enthuse people coming, they are the ones tweaking those messages and turning it into what you mentioned before. It says, you know, the border is open, so let's all go. That is why we have to go after them, as you were pointing out before.

CORNISH: The U.S. is also sending money to help with migrants transitioning to life back home, I believe to help build shelters. Can you talk about what that will look like?

QUINONEZ: There's a number of components in that endeavor, and one of those has to do with helping the people that are returned to Guatemala to reintegrate into society through helping them get their skills to a different level and also helping them to relocate in different parts of Guatemala. We believe that those programs are very important because some of the ones that get to be returned to our country, they try to come back into the United States. Unless we address those root causes, unless we create more prosperity, that is going to continue happening.

But there is also another component, and that was announced by Vice President Harris, and it's in the press release. It says, you know, there are also these idea of creating centers, resource centers in Guatemala to help those that are seeking protection beyond our borders to be helped in order to achieve that.

CORNISH: How will Guatemala guarantee the money will be used with that end in mind?

QUINONEZ: You know, that's a very important point, and we have asked that all the resources that are devoted for this endeavor be channeled through international organizations like the International Organization of Migrations or the refugee - U.N. refugee agencies. We are not asking for the money to go through our government, but rather going through those organizations. So they are the ones executing those resources.

CORNISH: Ambassador Quinonez, thank you so much for your time.

QUINONEZ: You're welcome. Anytime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.