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Covering Kamala Harris Covering Kamala Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris will lead response to migrant issue as numbers rise at border

President Biden with Vice President Kamala Harris.
President Biden speaks with Vice President Kamala Harris about the border crisis during a White House meeting Wednesday.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Biden tapped Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday to lead diplomatic efforts to stem the growing influx of migrants crossing the border with Mexico, handing her one of the administration’s thorniest problems.

While Harris has been active in Biden’s efforts to tame the COVID-19 pandemic and revive the economy, she had yet to carve out a particular niche of her own. Her newest job, to enlist Mexico and Central American countries to help address what the administration calls the root causes of migration, is a solo mission for which she will be judged directly.

The assignment speaks to the seriousness with which Biden, who took on a similar task when he was vice president, is approaching the problem — choosing his second in command to represent him in the region.

The job comes with political risk for Harris, who has been a highly visible presence in Biden’s early days but without a distinct portfolio. The administration, eager to reverse former President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, has appeared flatfooted as the numbers of people crossing the border has swelled, and images of children in overcrowded detention centers reveal the humanitarian toll.

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“This new surge we are dealing with now started in the past administration, but it is our responsibility,” Biden told reporters in advance of a White House meeting with Harris, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.

Biden said the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — the so-called Northern Triangle countries where many migrants begin their journey — and of Mexico, which could help deter the northbound migrants, will not “have to wonder” whether Harris speaks for him.

“She doesn’t have to check with me. She knows what she’s doing,” Biden said, pointing to Harris’ experience as California attorney general, where she did a “great deal for human rights” while fighting organized crime.

Harris said she would work to strengthen democratic institutions in those countries, efforts that she and Biden say will dissuade people from making the dangerous journey.

“No question, this is a challenging situation,” she added.

Former Harris advisors say she is well-suited for the job, though it’s a potential minefield. “High risk. Very low reward. But she is passionate about it,” said one, who requested anonymity to avoid alienating Harris or her staff.

During an interview earlier with CBS, before her new assignment was announced, Harris emphasized the need to meld diplomatic efforts with aid, an approach Biden was part of in 2014 when he was President Obama’s vice president and unaccompanied minors arrived in larger numbers.

“Look, we’ve been in office less than 100 days,” Harris said, urging patience. “We are addressing it. We’re dealing with it. But it’s going to take some time. And are we frustrated? Are you frustrated? Yes. We are.”

Administration officials said Harris does not have immediate travel plans. She spoke earlier Wednesday with a U.S. delegation traveling in Mexico. The delegation had been scheduled to continue to Guatemala, but a senior administration official said the plans were jettisoned after the eruption of a volcano there, which scrambled air travel in the region.

A Harris advisor said the task of leading the engagement with the four countries would not make Harris directly responsible for fixing the immediate problem of the surge at the border. That would continue to be handled by the departments of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration, and of Health and Human Services, which houses and supervises unaccompanied minors.

In January and February, border authorities encountered more than 15,000 unaccompanied minors. Is this a significant rise? Here are the facts.

White House officials who briefed reporters stressed that the administration would take a humanitarian approach to border issues, contrasting their efforts with the Trump administration’s policies.

“We are proceeding both with a sense of decency with treating migrants like human beings ... and treating our neighbors with respect and dignity,” said one of the officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

The problem, which has confronted Democratic and Republican administrations for years, is a vexing one, said Ben Rohrbaugh, director for enforcement and border security at the White House National Security Council under Obama.

“It is incredibly, incredibly hard to address Northern Triangle migration, especially with vulnerable groups like families and children,” he said. “You don’t just go in and say, ‘Here’s some aid, fix some things.’”

The continued surge of migrants has worried some Democratic strategists mindful of next year’s midterm election, given the party’s need to continue to win over politically moderate, white, working-class voters who form a key bloc in many northern states.

Similar worries have been raised publicly in recent days by Democratic members of Congress who represent heavily Latino districts in Texas, including Reps. Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez. Trump significantly improved his vote among Latinos in those areas in 2020 compared with 2016.

“Democrats moving forward have to accept the reality of American public opinion and politics — that border security is a huge issue that cannot be elided in any attempt to reform the immigration system,” Democratic analyst Ruy Teixeira wrote in a recent article.

Democrats can’t “simply be the opposite of Trump on this issue. He was closed; we’re open! He was mean; we’re nice!” Teixeira wrote. “Voters want an immigration system that is both reasonably generous and humane and under control.”

Churches and volunteers are coordinating the response in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, epicenter of an influx of migrants and unaccompanied children.

Republicans wasted no time in attacking. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey called Harris “the worst possible choice.”

“In no point in her career has she given any indication that she considers the border a problem, or a serious threat,” he said at an event in his state.

The Biden administration has attempted to deal with the political problem in part by blaming the Trump administration for leaving behind a “broken immigration system” and by emphasizing the economic, security and humanitarian problems in Central America that drive people to leave.

While blaming Trump may buy the administration some time, Democrats who have urged a more immediate strategy on border security say addressing the root causes of migration will take more time than voters are willing to give. They’ve urged the administration to stress action against the smuggling cartels that transport many migrants to the border.

Nathan Barankin, who served as Harris’ chief of staff when she was California attorney general, said she negotiated agreements on drug smuggling and human trafficking with Mexican officials while also playing “hardball with Obama’s DHS and ICE operations to push back on their broad-brush and unjust immigration enforcement practices.”

“Obviously the Central American countries are more thorny than Mexico, and people of goodwill and talent have been trying to solve the ‘root cause’ immigration problems there for a long time,” he added. “But I wouldn’t bet against Harris on this.”


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