Biden Gives Harris Her First Major Task: Solving Border Crisis
(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden put Kamala Harris in charge of resolving a surge in migration on the U.S. southern border that’s overwhelming federal immigration authorities, handing the vice president the first major assignment of her tenure.
Biden announced Harris’s assignment on Wednesday, with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress warning of a burgeoning humanitarian crisis as growing numbers of migrant children try to enter the U.S.
“I can think of nobody who’s better qualified to do this,” Biden said at the White House. “When she speaks, she speaks for me.”
It’s the first issue that Biden has publicly asked Harris to lead, a sign that her portfolio is beginning to take shape. But the assignment also carries the risk that Harris will be blamed if the situation worsens.
The move was meant as a display of trust in Harris’s leadership, according to a senior administration official who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity. Harris’s law enforcement background as the former attorney general of California was an important factor in the choice, the official said.
“This new surge we are dealing with now started in the past administration, but it is our responsibility,” Biden said.
Biden made the announcement at a White House meeting with two other officiaials overseeing the administration’s response Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
Harris’s assignment is similar to a task Biden took on as former President Barack Obama’s vice president in 2014 and 2015 when unaccompanied minors from the region first began arriving in the U.S. in large numbers.
Harris will have two goals in her new role, according to another senior administration official. She’ll develop strategies to stop the flow of migrants and establish better relationships with Mexico as well as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador -- three countries that make up the Northern Triangle where most migrants travel from. She is expected to speak with leaders of those countries in the coming weeks, the official said.
Part of the effort will focus on persuading Mexico and Central American countries to step up enforcement at their borders, but Harris will also work to address the root causes of migration by lack of jobs and corruption in the region. Biden said $700 million in aide to the Northern Triangle countries, ended during the Trump administration, would be restored.
“There’s no question that this is a challenging situation,” Harris said. “While we are clear that people should not come to the border now, we also understand that we will enforce the law and that we also -- because we can chew gum and walk at the same time -- address the root causes that cause people to make the trek.”
The surge of migrants has forced Biden to take on immigration policy -- a bitterly divisive issue -- as he seeks to rally support across the nation for his virus relief plan and build enthusiasm for another major spending bill.
A delegation of White House officials is also visiting a temporary HHS facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, along with several members of Congress. A television camera will be allowed to cover the tour. Previously, the government has blocked news organizations from entering the facilities, citing the potential spread of coronavirus.
The trip comes after Biden sent a delegation led by southwest border coordinator Roberta Jacobson to Mexico and Guatemala for high-levels talks on stemming the flow of migrants.
In an interview earlier Wednesday with CBS News, Harris said she and Biden would visit the border soon. But she also expressed frustration with the situation there.
“Look, we’ve been in office less than 100 days,” she said. “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.”
While the Biden administration has few options in the short term to stop the wave of unaccompanied children and teenagers coming to the U.S., it is rushing to create more space to house them. Images of children and teens crowded together inside border facilities have drawn national attention and heightened scrutiny of Biden’s handling of the situation.
Republicans have blamed the surge on Biden’s welcoming rhetoric regarding immigration and his efforts to roll back former President Donald Trump’s hard-line policies. The White House has pushed back on those claims, saying that the wave began while Trump was president and is primarily driven by the struggling economies and unsafe conditions in Central American countries.
More than 15,000 unaccompanied migrant children are in the custody of HHS and Customs and Border Protection, according to agency data. Under the law, children who are apprehended are supposed to spend no more than 72 hours in CBP custody before they are transferred to HHS shelters.
But lack of shelter space -- already in shorter supply due to pandemic-related distancing restrictions -- has forced many children to stay in CBP facilites that are unfit for children for longer than three days.
As a result, the administration reopened the emergency site at Carrizo Springs and is exploring other options, including housing them at military bases. The Defense Department said Tuesday it received a request from HHS to temporarily shelter the children at Joint Base San Antonio and Fort Bliss in Texas. Roughly 1,500 migrant teens have been taken to the Dallas convention center.
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