Vice President Harris on Friday made a closely watched trip to the southern border, where she met with border agents and young migrants and doubled down on the need to focus on the reason people are making the journey to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America.
Harris traveled to El Paso, Texas, her first trip to the U.S.-Mexico border as vice president and her first since President Biden announced she would lead the administration’s efforts to stem the flow of migrants to the border from Northern Triangle nations.
While Harris did not make any policy announcements or urge migrants not to make the trip to the U.S. as she did during a recent trip to Guatemala, she declared her border appearance productive while keeping the focus on the administration’s broader goals.
“This has been a very important trip,” Harris said during a press conference. “This has been a trip that also is connected with the obvious point: If you want to deal with a problem, you can’t just deal with the symptom of the problem, you’ve got to figure out what caused it to happen.”
Harris met with border agents at a central processing center and received a briefing on the facility’s operations and the technology being used to combat transnational crime.
The vice president also stopped at a port of entry that typically sees thousands of migrants pass through each day. While there, she met with five young girls who came to the U.S. from Central America. Harris held a roundtable with nonprofit and advocacy groups in El Paso before departing.
Harris’s team has been adamant in insisting that the vice president’s job is a diplomatic role, addressing relations with Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, while Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra are in charge of border management.
Most of Harris’s comments on Friday focused on the ongoing efforts to address the root causes of migration, framing her visit to El Paso as a way to see the consequences of failing to do so.
“Let’s do the work of agreeing you can’t just react to a problem without solving it at its roots. Let’s agree to that,” Harris said. “So, when I think about what I heard and saw today, I will tell you, it was very reaffirming of everything I heard and saw when I was in Guatemala, everything that I discussed with President [Andrés Manuel] López Obrador in Mexico about the partnership between the United States and Mexico to invest in the root causes. Seeing that there is a very clear and direct connection.”
The border visit followed weeks of outcry from Republicans and a few border-district Democrats who argued Harris and Biden were ignoring the seriousness of the surge in migrants by declining to travel there. Harris heightened the scrutiny when she laughed at a question from NBC’s Lester Holt while in Guatemala about why she had not visited the border, pointing out she also had not gone to Europe.
White House officials vehemently denied the trip was scheduled in response to Republican criticism or to preempt a visit to the border next week from former President Trump.
“This administration does not take their cues from Republican criticism, nor from the former President of the United States of America,” top Harris aide Symone Sanders told reporters. “We have said, over a number of different occasions … that she would go to the border. She has been before. She would go again. She would go when it was appropriate, when it made sense.”
Still, some Democrats and many Republicans were unsatisfied with Harris’s decision to visit El Paso. The area is represented by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who has been more supportive of the administration on immigration than some other Texas Democrats, and critics questioned why Harris would not go to the Rio Grande Valley or another area that has borne the brunt of the migration crisis.
“Communities like El Paso are struggling because of the damage the Biden-Harris administration has caused by opening the floodgates to human smugglers and drug cartels,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in a statement. “But, if the Vice President came to Texas without a concrete plan to secure our border and is unwilling to reverse her administration’s failed immigration policies that caused the crisis, then her visit is nothing short of a glorified photo-op.”
Harris’s choice of El Paso can also be read as a rebuke to Rep. Henry Cuéllar (D-Texas) in the Rio Grande Valley, who has been critical of the Biden administration’s border policies, and a reward to El Paso’s Escobar.
Cuéllar, who represents Laredo, has been a frequent guest on Fox News, where he’s been critical of the vice president, and has insisted that border management falls within Harris’s migration portfolio.
Rep. Filemón Vela (D-Texas), a vocal opponent of the border wall who also represents a district in the Rio Grande Valley, defended Harris’s choice of border venue for her first visit.
Asked whether he would have accepted the invitation from Cuéllar or Escobar in Harris’s shoes, Vela replied, “Veronica’s.”
“The vice president can’t be everywhere and El Paso is populated with migrant children and families,” said Vela.
“And besides, I’m in the Rio Grande Valley right now and we are focused on things other than migration. For example, the 1,400 jobs that SpaceX has created in the last 14 months. This is the border that we want to talk about down here,” he added.
Mayorkas, who had previously taken credit for recommending El Paso as the appropriate venue for Harris’s trip, doubled down Friday.
“I recommended to the vice president that we visit El Paso because it is one of the busiest scores on the border,” Mayorkas said. “El Paso reflects the many diverse elements of our mission. It demonstrates also the progress that has been made, and the work that remains.”
Harris argued the border city was a perfect encapsulation of the effects of the surge in migration and of the consequences of the Trump administration’s policies that aimed to restrict both legal and illegal immigration.
“It is here in El Paso that the previous administration’s child separation policy was unveiled,” Harris said. “It is here in El Paso that the return to Mexico policy from the previous administration was implemented. We have seen the disaster that resulted from that.”
The Biden administration has faced steady pressure to address the situation at the border as the number of migrants making their way to the U.S. surged in the first months of 2021, with critics arguing the relaxing of Trump-era policies had encouraged them to make the journey.
Housing facilities for migrant children were overcrowded as the number of unaccompanied children and families agents encountered at the border hit a record of nearly 19,000 in March. Those numbers have steadily decreased in the months since, though agents still encountered more than 14,000 unaccompanied children in May.
Progressive immigration advocates, meanwhile, largely downplayed the importance of the visit, focusing on the possibility of immigration legislation instead.
“What we’re concerned with is driving forward legislation that will put millions on a pathway to citizenship,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a progressive immigration reform advocacy group.
“The vice president is one person in that mix, quite frankly. We’re more concerned with policies that affect people on the ground, with legislative fights that affect millions, and we’ll leave the political pundits to talk about, ‘did she go to the right place and did she say the right thing?'” added Sharry.
Via The Hill