WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris visited the U.S.-Mexico border Friday as part of her role addressing the root causes of migration after weeks of pressure from her political opponents to go there in person.
The trip, her first to the border since taking office, comes as Harris has struggled to navigate the thorny politics of her assignment and has had difficulty responding to Republicans who have criticized her for not going sooner.
The White House abruptly announced the trip this week following Harris' trip to Mexico and Guatemala earlier this month, where she defended her decision to not yet visit the border in an interview with NBC, drawing a fresh wave of attacks from Republicans. It would have been a "grand gesture," she said, arguing that she had not yet been to Europe, either.
Harris, who has gone out of her way to stress that she is not in charge of the humanitarian challenges occurring directly at the border, said her visit Friday was a natural extension of the work she has been doing to address the causes of migration and urged lawmakers to "stop the rhetoric and finger-pointing and do what we need to do."
"This issue cannot be reduced to a political issue," she added. "We’re talking about children. We’re talking about families. We’re talking about suffering."
Harris was joined in El Paso Friday by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas; Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has led efforts on bipartisan immigration reform; and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who represents the El Paso area.
Harris toured a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, where she met with nonprofit organizations and legal service providers as well as young girls from Central America. She also visited the El Paso del Norte Port of Entry, one of the country’s busiest pedestrian border crossings.
Harris' office announced her visit to the border shortly after former President Donald Trump said he would visit the southern border next week with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and a group of House Republican lawmakers. The White House shrugged off suggestions that Friday's trip was politically motivated.
"This administration does not take their cues from Republican criticism, nor from the former president of the United States of America," said Symone Sanders, Harris' chief spokesperson.
President Joe Biden announced in March that he was tasking Harris with leading diplomatic efforts to address the root causes of migration from Central America amid a rising number of people — many of them unaccompanied children — arriving at the U.S. southern border seeking asylum.
The assignment thrust Harris into the center of a divisive issue that has vexed lawmakers for decades, and the potential for political fallout sent aides close to her scrambling to clarify that the vice president was not directly responsible for the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Still, Republican criticism continued even after Harris announced she would visit the border, with many chiding her decision to go to El Paso rather than other parts of the state like the Rio Grande Valley, which see significantly more border crossings.
"Harris is 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," said Abbott, a Republican.
Mayorkas said that he recommended El Paso to Harris because the city demonstrates "the progress that has been made and the work that remains." Mayorkas said that in March, unaccompanied migrant children in El Paso were spending on average more than 120 hours in border patrol custody. Today, Mayorkas said, children arriving in El Paso are moved through border patrol custody within 30 hours.
By law, children are not supposed to stay in border shelters for more than 72 hours.
The choice to visit El Paso was also symbolic, Harris said. "It was here in El Paso that the previous administration's child separation policy was unveiled. And so we have seen the disastrous effects of that right in this region," she told reporters.
While politics hung over Harris' trip, she was also confronted with significant policy questions, especially as the Biden administration attempts to balance deterring migration with its commitment to implement humane immigration policies.
Harris was sharply criticized by some Democrats during her trip to Guatemala for issuing a direct warning to prospective migrants, warning them: "Do not come." Migrants have a legal right to apply for asylum in the U.S. once they step foot in the country, regardless if they entered legally or illegally.
The Biden administration has also been criticized by Democrats and immigration advocates for keeping in place Title 42, a public health order implemented by the Trump administration ostensibly to curb the spread of Covid-19. Most adults traveling alone have been quickly removed from the U.S. under this order.
The White House has declined to say when the order will be lifted. Mayorkas said Friday that the decision on when to ease Title 42 would be based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It's a public health decision. It's based on the well being of the American public," he said.
While Friday was Harris' first time to the border as vice president, she made a number of visits as senator and as attorney general of California.
Rohini Kosoglu, domestic policy adviser to the vice president and one of Harris' longest serving aides, said that Harris "has spent her career fighting for immigrants."
"None of this is new," she said.