Biden leaned on Guatemala for help after Title 42 end. Now, they're calling up Republicans


Guatemalan migrants deported from the United States walk on the airport runway upon their arrival at the Air Force Base in Guatemala City on Thursday.

As Title 42 was set to expire and exacerbate chaos at the U.S.-Mexico border, the leader of one of the United States’ key partners is out of lockstep with the Biden administration. Instead, he was dialing Republicans in Congress.

At issue was whether Guatemala could take in migrants with their sights set on the U.S.-Mexico border, part of the key initiatives being rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security as the pandemic-era immigration policy that allowed the U.S. to quickly expel migrants ends. As late as Thursday, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had still not confirmed publicly whether they would be collaborating with the Biden administration's plan, Guatemalan paper Prensa Libre reported.

Instead, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei calls to over half a dozen lawmakers gave Republicans new fodder for bashing Biden over his immigration policies.

“Yesterday, the president of Guatemala calls me and he says, ‘Tony, I can't get a hold of anyone in the administration,’” Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, who represents more than 800 miles of the Texas-Mexico border, told the El Paso Times and USA TODAY about a May 3 conversation.

Guatemala's ambassador to the United States was more tempered, saying the president has spoken to 10 lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats. He declined to identify them by name. He confirmed a conversation with Gonzales.

A U.S. official familiar with the plan said the Guatemalan foreign minister had agreed "in principle" to help with the processing centers but that his government had follow-up questions about implementation that needed to be worked out.

Another U.S. official Thursday night denied the claims that there's no communication between both governments saying the Biden administration has “regular communications with the Guatemalan government at all levels, including with the president” and that the two presidents “have spoken on many occasions.”

“We’re in a really good place with Guatemala on regional processing centers,” the U.S. official said. “The plan is to start with Guatemalan nationals.”

Alfonso Quinonez, the Guatemalan ambassador, said Giammattei did not beg for anything but did ask for their support to help Guatemala stop illegal migration through the country. The assistance would include surveillance technology, transportation vehicles, and food and shelter for police officers and military personnel.

“He briefed them on what we are doing" as Title 42 is ending, Quinonez said. "We have the political will to stop irregular migration - we have limited resources."

The rift between Biden and Giammattei, and the subsequent rapprochement with the GOP has been two years in the making.

Under the Biden administration, the U.S. government has sharply criticized the weakening of anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala under Giammattei. U.S. authorities cancelled the visa of the country’s last top prosecutor after roughly two dozen prosecutors, judges and magistrates fled into exile out of fear of government prosecution for their anti-corruption crusades.

Last year, Giammattei's government signed a nearly $1 million contract with a major supporter of former president Donald Trump to allegedly seek influence with US officials, foreign lobby records show.

Guatemala, saddled with extreme poverty, has historically seen tens of thousands of its citizens migrate each year to the U.S. But with thousands of other migrants now coming from South America and nations outside the Western Hemisphere, Guatemala has found itself the second-to-last stop, before Mexico, on a major smuggling route north.

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Guatemla pushes back on Biden's processing centers

Republicans said the Guatemalan president painted a dire picture.

Gonzales said, quoting Giammattei: “‘I'm not begging you for money. I'm asking you for help. Can you help set up a call or have the Biden administration work with me so that way we can fix this?’ Because in his eyes, Guatemala is our southern border. He goes, ‘They’re here today; a week from now they will be in El Paso or Brownsville.’”

Some Republican lawmakers say Guatemala has bemoaned their border crisis for years.

Sen.  Bill Haggerty, R-Tenn., said Thursday he also met with Giammattei at his presidential palace in Guatemala City in May 2021. During their meeting, Haggerty said the Guatemalan president expressed he'd "lost all control of his southern border."

Meanwhile, Guatemalan officials have also publicly pushed back on initiatives from the United States.

Biden’s Department of Homeland Security announced April 27 that it would open regional processing centers in Guatemala and Colombia to “reduce irregular migration and facilitate safe, orderly, humane and lawful pathways from the Americas,” to countries such as the United States, Canada and Spain.

"We want to be apparent and say very, very, very clearly that Guatemala isn’t a safe third country and it never will be a safe third country,” Mario Búcaro, the top official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told reporters in a May 2 press conference streamed online through a Guatemalan national television channel.

Contributing: Rebecca MorinAssociated Press

Guatemalan migrants who were deported from the U.S. deplane at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City on Thursday.

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