Harris Rebuts Critics After Visiting Migrant Children at Border
(Bloomberg) -- Vice President Kamala Harris shot back at Republicans who’ve criticized her efforts to curb Central American migration Friday, after she visited migrant children on her first trip to the U.S. southern border since taking office.
“This issue cannot be reduced to a political issue,” Harris said at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in El Paso, Texas. “We’re talking about children, we’re talking about families, we’re talking about suffering. And our approach has to be thoughtful and effective.”
Harris has faced months of denunciations from Republicans -- as well as frustration from some Democrats -- for not having gone to the border sooner. But the vice president defended the timing of the trip as well as the choice of location -- some critics said she should have gone to the Rio Grande Valley, which has borne a bigger brunt of the migrant influx.
“I said in March I was going to come to the border. This is not a new plan,” Harris said earlier Friday after landing in El Paso.
The visit to El Paso marked a symbolic rejection of former President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration strategies. Trump’s policy to separate migrant children from their families was first tested in El Paso before being expanded, and the city is where applications for asylum are now being processed for people who, under Trump, were forced to wait on a U.S. decision in Mexico.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also noted that the El Paso border station has dramatically accelerated moving kids out of its custody to more appropriate detention centers run by the Health and Human Services department.
Earlier this month, Harris traveled to Guatemala and Mexico to discuss joint strategies with their leaders to slow the pace of migration from Central America. She has said that the success of her assignment depends primarily on addressing the economic and social causes of migration, not a visit to the southwest border that she dismissed in one interview as a “grand gesture.”
“The reality of it is we have to deal with causes and we have to deal with the effects,” Harris said Friday. She said she came to El Paso at the invitation of Representative Veronica Escobar, who called the city the “new Ellis Island.”
“Coming to the border at the advice, and actually at the invitation of the congresswoman, it’s about looking at the effects of what we have seen happening in Central America,” she said. “It was always the plan to come here.”
Record numbers of apprehensions of migrants from Central America have presented the Biden administration with a humanitarian and political dilemma. Republicans have called the surge a crisis and have blamed President Joe Biden’s more lenient posture toward migrants for drawing people to the country.
Harris’s visit came just days before Trump is scheduled to tour a different part of the Texas border with the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, who has vowed to take up construction of the border wall that was discontinued after Biden took office.
So far, Harris has focused on diplomacy to improve conditions in the region.
Yet Harris’s planned trip to El Paso has done little to quell her critics, who say she is avoiding other border areas such as the lower Rio Grande Valley, which in the last fiscal year has seen the biggest spike in migration by single adults, families and children and teenagers traveling alone, according to CBP data.
Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat from Laredo, praised Harris for making the trip to El Paso but also said it won’t give her the “true picture” of the situation because she will be far from areas where migrant apprehensions have been highest.
“You just can’t just go to one place. But she does do the check the box and go down to the border by going to El Paso,” Cuellar said Thursday on Fox News, adding that her schedule is “politically safer” than a visit to a high-activity area.
Harris on Friday was accompanied by two Democratic lawmakers who have been supportive of the administration’s immigration policies, Escobar and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin.
Abbott assailed the Harris trip and the Biden administration’s approach to migration.
“Vice President 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,” he said in a statement ahead of her trip.
Border agents in May had more than 180,000 encounters with migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, the highest monthly total in more than two decades according to CBP. Those numbers were fueled in large part by a pandemic-related order that allows most asylum seekers to be immediately expelled without legal proceedings, a move that resulted in many migrants making repeated attempts to enter the U.S.
That dynamic has led some Democrats from border areas to criticize the administration’s approach and join Republicans in urging Harris to visit to witness the problem first hand.
The issue also cast a cloud over Harris’s recent trip to Mexico and Guatemala, where she attempted to focus on ways to create economic opportunity in Central America. Her aides have maintained that her efforts to address the causes of migration are separate from the border crisis. Yet critics nonetheless used that visit to accuse her of ignoring a crisis at home.
The Biden administration is forging ahead with its effort to make the immigration system more welcoming. This week, officials forced out Rodney Scott as head of the U.S. Border Patrol. Scott took over the agency in the final year of the Trump administration and openly supported the former president’s policies.
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