Immigration disappears from Kamala Harris’ public agenda | Policy
It was his first trip abroad, and Vice President Harris, recently deputized to tackle what the White House calls “the root causes of migration,” was in Guatemala trying to break through with a message simple. “Don’t come,” Harris told would-be migrants last June. “Don’t come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders.
They didn’t listen, or if migrants heard Harris last year, many ignored his message. Last month, according to US Customs and Border Patrol, 234,088 migrants were apprehended at the southern border, the highest rating ever.
When asked that same month if President Biden had faith in Harris and his ability to handle the situation, then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki replied: “he absolutely does.” But as the flow of migrants accelerates across the southern border, immigration has slipped off the vice president’s public agenda.
A compilation of this calendar by the Los Angeles Times, reviewed by RealClearPolitics, shows that Harris has not hosted an immigration-specific event since last summer. The latest, a meeting with Asian, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander American leaders at the White House last August, touched briefly on immigration.
White House officials dispute any characterization that Harris’ public timeline tells the whole story. “The vice president continues to lead the implementation of the root cause strategy and has engaged with Cabinet and other administration officials in this effort,” said Harris’ press secretary, Kirsten Allen, at RCP.
Rising to the challenge is still part of the political portfolio of the vice president. She leads high-level meetings that are not always made public, and she has taken over diplomatic efforts in the region. For example, it was Harris who traveled to Honduras for the inauguration of President Xiomara Castro in January. Administration officials hoped to find a new ally in this executive, someone who would help stem the flow of millions heading north through Central America toward the southern border. According to an official White House reading, Harris and Castro discussed “a wide range of problems.” Among them, migration, but also the coronavirus and the economy as well as corruption and gender-based violence.
Despite these efforts, the influx has not slowed and Biden is expected to end enforcement of Title 42, the pandemic policy that allowed Border Patrol to turn back hundreds of thousands of migrants for public health reasons. Warnings from some Democrats in border states, including Texas Representative Henry Cuellarhave gone unnoticed.
The Department of Homeland Security is preparing for more record numbers at the border, and NBC News reporting that the department fears may not have enough funds to meet an increase if Title 42 is lifted, compounding a challenge Biden has faced since the start of his presidency.
As the number of bans began to mount and chaotic images of the southern border flooded cable news, concern grew, even among Democrats. Biden’s own pollsters, The New York Times reported, warned the problem was “increasing vulnerability.” Biden has always insisted he can handle the situation, but with divine intervention.
“Is there a crisis at the border? RCP asked the president as he left the East Room of the White House after a speech last March.
“Nope,” Biden replied over his shoulder. “We’ll be able to handle it,” he said, walking side by side with Harris. “God willing.”
Two weeks later, the Associated Press reported at the timeBiden called on Harris to lead the administration’s efforts to address the migration challenge on the southern border and work with Central American countries to address the root causes of the problem. Republicans were eager to assign blame and dubbed Harris “the Border Czar”.
The vice-president rejected this framing and sought to clarify her mission. As the White House press secretary explained to reporters last March, Harris “will help lead this effort, particularly the root causes – not the border”, admitting that there has been “some confusion at this subject”.
The president was also confused: When Biden and Harris met with the Congressional Black Caucus in April of that year, he praised his vice president, saying she would “a hell of a job” immigration management, according to a new book by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns. But Harris corrected it on the spot, the two write. “Excuse me,” she said, “it’s the Northern Triangle – not immigration.”
Biden finally clarified the mission. “It’s not his full responsibility,” he said. later told reportersbut “when she speaks, she speaks for me”.
Whether she wanted the job or not, Harris rose to the challenge. She made three trips to the area and she went to the southern border to hear directly from the Border Patrol. The vice president has met with both law enforcement and migrant groups, stressing all the time that the issue “cannot be reduced to a political issue.”
The politics were there from the start though, and some worried that stepping in for Harris to take on such a gigantic challenge might unfairly burden her with a thankless mission for which there is no easy solution. “She is qualified to do the job” Chuck Rocha told RCP of Biden’s decision to entrust this part of his political portfolio to his vice president. Rocha led Latino outreach for Sen. Bernie Sanders in that candidate’s two presidential bids, and Rocha credited Harris with being “a strong advocate for the progressive wing of the immigration movement.”
Still, Rocha warned last year that expectations needed to be tempered: “This is a problem we’ve been trying to solve for generations, a problem I don’t think any one person can totally solve.”
Biden has called on Congress to undertake comprehensive immigration reform since taking the White House. There is no bipartisan appetite on Capitol Hill for The law project that he sent to Congress on his first day in office. The administration was then left to fend for itself, and Harris released a 20-page plan last July to fix the problem.
“We will build on what works and move away from what doesn’t,” Harris wrote in an introduction to the plan which focuses on building partnerships with countries in the Northern Triangle to fight corruption, violence and poverty.
“It won’t be easy and progress won’t be instantaneous,” the vice president warned, “but we are committed to getting it right.” Biden should know. He was delegated by then-President Obama to take on a similar mission amid an earlier wave of migrants, many of them unaccompanied children. While touring Central and South American countries in 2014, he offered U.S. assistance to root out corruption, provide economic opportunity, and provide security in Northern Triangle countries.
“We have to address the root causes,” Vice President Biden told reporters gathered for a press conference at the residence of the US ambassador to Guatemala, echoing the exact phrase his administration is now using eight years later.
Biden understands the challenge, and that meeting it without help from Congress is arduous and thankless, if not impossible.
“I said when we became a team and got elected, the vice president was going to be the last person in the room,” he joked last march when he announced that Harris would lead the mission. “She didn’t realize that means she gets all the assignments.”
“I gave you a hard job, and you smile, but there’s no one better able to try to organize this for us,” the president continued after the levity. The Vice President did not flinch. She thanked him “for having confidence in me”. Then Harris added, “There’s no doubt that this is a difficult situation.”