Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to the U.S. southern border on Friday, the administration confirmed Wednesday, following months of Republicans’ criticism over the Biden administration’s handling of a large increase in families and unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America.
The trip to El Paso with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas is sure to be politically fraught. Harris, who is in charge of diplomatic efforts with Central American leaders, had resisted going to the U.S.-Mexico border since becoming vice president, though she went numerous times as a senator and as California’s attorney general.
The conditions there are not officially part of the task that President Biden assigned Harris in March. She is responsible for addressing the “root causes” of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador by working with leaders and activists in those countries.
Yet Republicans have called her the “border czar,” hoping to make Harris the face of an issue that they believe could help them politically in next year’s midterm congressional elections. A group of Republican members of Congress announced Wednesday, before word of Harris’ trip, that they would go to the border next week with former President Trump.
“WOW. Biden and Harris blinked,” tweeted Jason Miller, a Trump advisor. “Kamala Harris is only going to the border because President Trump is going to the border.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who has taken a lead role in criticizing the administration, said Harris of “ignoring the real problem areas along our southern border that are not protected by the border wall and are being overrun by the federal government’s ill-thought-out open border policies.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki denied Harris’ visit was aimed at heading off criticism from Trump. “We made an assessment within our government about when it was an appropriate time for her to go to the border,” she said at her daily briefing Wednesday.
Some nonpartisan experts and immigrant advocates also have said that Harris should go to the border because it is the end of a long and dangerous journey for those fleeing poverty and lawlessness in their home countries, the conditions that Harris is in charge of helping to alleviate.
Harris said earlier this month, when pressed by reporters during a trip to Guatemala and Mexico, that she would go to the border soon.
On that two-day visit, she largely succeeded in establishing rapport with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. But the trip was overshadowed by her testy response to NBC News anchor Lester Holt during an extended interview, when he asked why she hadn’t been to the border.
“And I haven’t been to Europe,” she responded at one point.
White House officials, who spoke about Harris’ trip on the condition of anonymity, said it was not politically motivated. But they would not say when it was planned and made a point of noting the political significance of El Paso, as the site where the Trump administration’s family separation policy began with a 2017 pilot program.
Harris, as a senator, decried the policy of border officials taking children away from parents arriving at the border. She also previously criticized the Trump administration’s use of a public health law — known as Title 42 — to justify turning away migrants quickly during the pandemic. Yet the Biden administration has not ended the policy. Officials said Wednesday it was “designed to be temporary,” suggesting the policy could end soon.
Its continuation illustrates another challenge for Harris — balancing the administration’s desire to keep large numbers of people from coming to the border against its promises to treat them humanely.
“Hopefully the vice president will look at ways of building legal pathways for migration from Central America and how to fix the asylum system,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) is also hoping Harris and Biden will push back against Republicans’ attacks.
“At the top of the agenda in El Paso should be setting the record straight on the dangerous and reckless rhetoric from Greg Abbott and [Texas Lt. Gov.] Dan Patrick about an ‘invasion,’ and also the Biden administration’s work to rebuild the asylum system decimated by President Trump,” Castro said.
Despite the heavy air of politics that is certain to hang over Harris’ visit, it revolves around a serious issue. Thousands of people are fleeing poverty, crime, corrupt governments and gang violence, all of which have been exacerbated by natural disasters and the pandemic.
Harris has promised that the United States will work to increase aid, private investment and vaccine supplies to the region and has pushed anti-corruption efforts. But she has declined to define success, repeatedly warning that it will take time to reverse problems that have persisted for decades.
Since Biden took office in January, U.S. authorities have made more than 700,000 stops of people crossing the border, including more than 65,000 unaccompanied minors and 175,000 families, according to the latest government data.
The vast majority of border crossers have been single adult Mexican men, and most migrants have been quickly removed under the Trump-era coronavirus policy the Biden administration has kept. But the increase in families and unaccompanied minors has overwhelmed a U.S. immigration system not geared toward them.
As of Tuesday, more than 1,000 lone migrant children remained in holding cells in U.S. border officials’ custody, and nearly 15,000 remained at sites overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, which is charged with caring for unaccompanied children.
Former Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Martha Bárcena, responding to the news of Harris’ border trip on Twitter, wrote that the vice president has a long to-do list. López Obrador was friendly with Trump, despite his threats against Mexico unless it cracked down on migrants heading toward the U.S., and Bárcena emphasized a need for continued cooperation. “We must remember: The border has a shared future,” she tweeted.
Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.