WASHINGTON — There's a very real border crisis, Vice President Kamala Harris tacitly conceded when she visited Guatemala this week and delivered a message — "Do not come. Do not come." — that was aimed as much at the U.S. political audience as it was at potential migrants.
It wasn't the first time a high-ranking Biden administration official uttered that sentiment, as the White House press office was quick to point out to reporters.
But the emphasis Harris put on deterrence, with her words and the location of her first foreign trip, points to the Biden administration's troubles in identifying and solving a complex policy problem that is rife with political pitfalls. For a White House team that came into office promising to be more compassionate and effective on immigration policy, there is tremendous political risk in failing on either front. That may be most true for Harris, who is seen by many Democrats as the party's future.
And the White House has been slow to respond to a major spike in migration.
"The truth of the matter is: Nothing has changed," Biden said from the East Room of the White House on March 25. "It happens every single, solitary year. There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. That happens every year."
But the numbers tell a much different story. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 178,622 enforcement encounters in April, a 63 percent increase from the same month in 2020. The agency had more than 450,000 encounters from February through April, compared to fewer than 90,000 over the same period last year.
Former President Donald Trump, who is considering a 2024 bid for the office he lost, focused on the explosion of border-crossings on Saturday in his first political speech since leaving office.
"Our border is wide open," he said. "Illegal immigration is skyrocketing at a level that we’ve never seen before, and this is over a period of a few months."
The political peril is particularly acute for Harris because Biden handed the Northern Triangle portfolio — U.S. relations with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — to her, and because she is widely seen as likely to run for president again. In a time-honored tradition, Biden has delegated a series of low percentage assignments to his vice president, a tactic with which he is intimately familiar from his time as President Barack Obama's No. 2. Back then, Biden was put in charge of dealing with the Northern Triangle countries on immigration.
"There's inherent political risk in this" for Harris, said one former Obama administration and campaign official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the White House. "This is a problem that is not going to be solved quickly."
Harris could, of course, exceed expectations and succeed on some of her tasks, which would be politically advantageous.
But for now, she is taking hits for Biden from the right and the left.
"It’s impossible to have it both ways — one cannot exclude and be welcoming at the same time," Katie Adams, domestic policy advocate for the United Church of Christ, said in one of a series of statements from faith leaders pressing the Biden administration to show more compassion to immigrants.
In addition to addressing the "root cause" of the border crisis, Harris has been assigned to conquer vaccine hesitancy; campaign for elements of Biden's ambitious infrastructure, tax and family-care proposals; and push the Senate to adopt an election-reform measure that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., opposes. The list goes on. For all that accountability, Harris has little formal power — only a tie-breaking vote in the Senate — and almost as little chance of success.
Republicans have jumped on her this week — and appear to be enjoying the opportunity to ding a potential future presidential candidate.
"Vice President Harris won’t find the root cause of the border crisis on her Central America tour because it’s her and President Biden’s policies that are actually responsible," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Monday. He and other Republicans criticized Harris for traveling outside the U.S. — rather than to the southern border — to address the issue.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday on the Senate floor that he wants Harris to get behind a bill he introduced with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, that would set up regional processing centers for undocumented immigrants and revise the system for assessing asylum claims.
"Former Senator Harris' list of legislative accomplishments and her experience solving complex policy problems is not particularly deep," Cornyn said. "But rather than be critical, I'd like to offer a suggestion. ... I'd be happy to offer this legislation to Vice President Harris or President Biden as a solution to the crisis on our southern border."
Harris told NBC's Lester Holt Monday that the border is a symptom of the problem.
"Listen, I care about what's happening on the border. I’m in Guatemala because my focus is dealing with the root causes of migration," she said. "There may be some who think that that is not important, but it is my firm belief that if we care about what's happening at the border, we better care about the root causes and address that. And so that’s what I’m doing."
Similarly, the Northern Triangle task is symptomatic of a much more complex problem for Harris. She doesn't get to pick her assignments, and Biden, who says he will run for re-election, isn't doing her any favors with the way he's delegating them.
That construct is one reason so few vice presidents have been directly elected to succeed their bosses. The last one was George H.W. Bush in 1988. Before that, it was Martin Van Buren in 1836.
“The fact that the vice president is delivering a message that some more liberal members of her party would disagree with crystallizes just how tricky it is for a vice president to win the presidency,” said Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First in Line,” a book about modern American vice presidents. “By handing Vice President Harris the assignment of dealing with what amounts to an intractable problem, Biden is certainly complicating her future. One can easily see her words being used against her in a Democratic primary, for instance."
That’s what Harris signed up for, Brower said.
“But all vice presidents are in this same position of carrying out an assignment that is either too unimportant or too controversial for the president to take on,” she said. “It's their job.”