WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he has appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to lead efforts to stem migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, as the administration faces growing political pressure to address a surge in undocumented migrant children unaccompanied by parents.
Biden said during an immigration meeting at the White House that he had asked Harris to lead the administration's efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, countries that will "need help stemming the movement of so many folks, stemming the migration to our southern border."
A senior administration official said Harris' role would focus on "two tracks": both curbing the current flow of migrants and implementing a long-term strategy that addresses the root causes of migration. Cabinet members, including the secretary of state, are expected to work closely with Harris on these issues.
Biden, who as vice president was tasked by then-President Barack Obama with coordinating on similar efforts in Central America, said he learned during that time that "if you deal with the problems in the country, it benefits everyone." There were a number of issues the United States could help the region address, ranging from violence to natural disasters, that he said were ignored by the previous administration.
Harris, seated by Biden's side, echoed the assessment. "There is no question that this is a challenging situation," she said.
Harris said she planned to work with a number of stakeholders including the private sector, civil society and members of Congress who share the administration's interest in addressing the root causes of migration.
The president's announcement comes as he has scrambled to find a solution that provides care for thousands of those unaccompanied children during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, while also working with Central American countries to address long-term solutions to migration in that region.
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A number of top officials have been dispatched in recent days to help address the issue, with a group of senior White House officials and Democratic lawmakers traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border Wednesday.
An NBC News crew accompanied the delegation to the Department of Health and Human Services' Carrizo Springs Influx Care Facility in Texas, where hundreds of minors between the ages of 13 and 17 who crossed the border are being held while they're processed. Officials said there are currently 766 minors at the facility, which has a capacity of 952.
Officials there said 108 of the children had tested positive for the coronavirus when they entered the facility. Those who test positive are kept in negative air pressure dormitories, and none of the minors are released from the facility until they've had two negative Covid-19 tests.
The facility has classrooms for the teenagers, and dormitories that hold four children in a room. There was no indication of overcrowding. Other top officials were expected to visit Mexico and Guatemala.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said that the conditions at the Carrizo Springs facility, which first opened in 2019, aren't representative of the problems at other facilities, some of which have been overwhelmed.
"True transparency would be to open the Donna facility to press that’s at 1,556% capacity when 18 Senators go there Friday," Cruz tweeted. "Reports about the CBP's Donna facility indicate minors are hungry, have only showered once in 7 days, were forced to sleep on the floor, and haven't seen sunlight in days. Of course the Biden admin isn't allowing cameras in that facility."
Photos that Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, shared with NBC News from the Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna earlier this week appeared to show migrants, including children, in groups separated by plastic. An aide for Cuellar said each of the eight “pods” in the facility has a 260-person capacity, but as of Sunday one pod held more than 400 unaccompanied male minors.
The Biden administration has been criticized for keeping reporters out of the border facilities amid complaints of poor conditions and overcrowding. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the administration is working "to increase transparency and provide additional access" to border facilities.
The surge in migration has created a difficult problem for Biden who campaigned on a promise to reverse Trump-era policies that he and Democrats characterized as cruel and inhumane. At the same time, Republicans have blamed Biden for the increase in migrants, saying that the president's rhetoric and policies have encouraged people to travel to the U.S. from Central America.
Undocumented immigration tends to increase seasonally in the early spring after the cold winter months and ahead of the summer when border crossings can be deadly. While data shows a sharper increase in border crossings this spring compared to previous seasons, some experts say that increase is expected given the pent-up demand from people who had delayed their journeys amid the pandemic.
Biden has kept in place Title 42, a public health order put in place by the Trump administration ostensibly to curb the spread of Covid-19, that expels the vast majority of undocumented adults. He has declined to expel unaccompanied immigrant children.
For weeks, the White House has declined to say whether Harris would be given a specific policy portfolio, instead insisting that Biden and Harris were full governing partners and would tackle issues in tandem. Wednesday's announcement marks the first high-profile policy initiative Harris will take on as vice president.
"Biden has said over and over again that 'the person I trust most, the person I turn to when there's a hard issue, is Kamala Harris,'" another senior administration official said, adding that Biden thought Harris' experience dealing with organized crime and human rights issues as attorney general of California would be beneficial to the role.
In an interview with CBS earlier Wednesday, Harris said that she and Biden would "absolutely" visit the border sometime soon.
"We need to deal with what's happening in the Northern Triangle and address it in a way that is about not only diplomacy, but bringing our allies together," she said, acknowledging that the current overcrowding of migrant children in border facilities was a "huge problem."
"Look, we've been in office less than 100 days. We are addressing it. We're dealing with it. But it's going to take some time." Harris said. "And are we frustrated? Are you frustrated? Yes. We are."