EL PASO, Texas – Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday made her first visit to America’s southern border since her inauguration, facing sharp criticism from Republicans who claim White House immigration policies are too lax as well as critiques from liberal advocates who argue President Joe Biden is continuing the harsh policies of his predecessor.
Harris’s 4½ hours in this border city are likely to do little to blunt the complaints that have followed her as she tries to manage the assignment Biden gave her in March to address the root causes of illegal immigration from south of the border.
Harris has sought to emphasize that her designated role is to grapple with the forces that push migrants to head to the United States, rather than to manage problems at the border itself – an argument that has done little to shield her from political attacks from the left and the right.
Republicans began assailing Harris’s trip even before Air Force Two touched down, calling it a “layover” in El Paso and saying the vice president was avoiding parts of the border where the greatest migrant influxes have occurred under the Biden-Harris administration. On the other flank, Amnesty International accused Biden of “falling back on dangerous practices pushed by the Trump administration” despite campaigning on the promise of a more humane system.
After touring the port of entry and border operation at El Paso, Harris stressed that she was focusing on resolving problems thousands of miles away in Central America.
“My trip to Guatemala and Mexico was about addressing the root causes,” Harris said at the end of her El Paso trip, referring to a recent visit to those countries. “The stories that I heard and the interactions that we had today reinforced the nature of those root causes: a lack of economic opportunity, very often violence, corruption and food insecurity, and the basic needs not being met, including fear of cartels and gang violence.”
Many administration allies worry that her visiting the border plays into the hands of Republicans who have sought to tie Harris to a chaotic surge in irregular migration during Biden’s first months in office. Some GOP leaders and conservative pundits have dubbed her Biden’s “Border Czar” in hopes of making her the face of an issue that for decades has proved intractable for presidents from both parties.
If the argument sticks, it could damage Democrats in the midterm elections despite their success in passing a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill and recently making progress on an infrastructure measure. The label also could stain the reputation of Harris, who is widely considered a future presidential aspirant.
Harris’s visit also offered a new foothold for arguments from immigrant advocates who contend that Biden’s approach to immigration enforcement contains vestiges of President Donald Trump’s hard-edged border policies.
The administration faces growing pressure to rescind the use of a public health order instituted under Trump that lets immigration authorities turn away border crossers and asylum seekers because they may be carrying the novel coronavirus. Critics say the order, known as Title 42, is inhumane and sometimes returns vulnerable migrants to the dangerous situations they fled. The critics also say the order is increasingly unnecessary as more Americans are vaccinated and the United States makes strides against the virus.
Harris and her advisers said the border trip was part of a continuing effort to understand the journey of migrants from start to finish and that politics did not play a role in her decision to visit.
But they have also stressed that El Paso is the site of the “launch” of the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border, which both Biden and Harris blasted on the 2020 campaign trail as inhumane. During her meeting with faith and community leaders Friday, Harris spoke of efforts to mend a “broken asylum system” and said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was expediting a process to reunite families separated during Trump’s tenure.
At the end of the day, some were calling the trip inadequate. Among them was Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who in recent weeks had written a letter urging Harris to visit the border.
“I’m glad that she checked the box and went to the border,” Cuellar told CNN. “But the epicenter is down in the Rio Grande Valley. If you really want to get a sense of what’s going on, you need to go down to Donna, Texas.”
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