Vice President Kamala Harris and her staff have made it clear that she does not manage the southern border in the weeks since the President asked her to take charge of immigration from Central America.
Harris and her aides have emphasized internally, according to two White House officials familiar with the dynamic, that they want to focus on the conditions in Central America that drive migrants to the US southern border, as President Joe Biden tasked her to do. This spring, a record number of unaccompanied minors entered the United States, and the throngs of desperate minors are both a humanitarian and a political issue.
Prior to an immigration meeting in the White House State Dining Room on March 24, Biden announced Harris’ new role, telling reporters that he had asked the vice president “because she’s the most qualified person to do it, to lead our efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle, and the countries that can help, need help in stemming the movement of so many folks, stemming the migration to our southern border.”
Harris’ aides appeared to “panic” after the announcement, according to one of the officials, because they were concerned that her assignment was being mischaracterized and that it could be politically damaging if she was linked to the border, which was facing an influx of migrants at the time. Another White House official, however, disputed the sentiment, claiming that the vice president’s team was not in a panic.
According to one of the officials, Harris appears eager for a portfolio that will enable her to win political victories, particularly in foreign policy, an area where she lacks Biden’s experience. Instead, Republican critics and the media have painted her new immigration role as a border assignment, potentially exposing her to criticism for how she handles the seemingly intractable issue.
Harris’ performance is critical to her political future, which could include a presidential run. It’s also a source of concern for her right now, as she prepares to travel to Guatemala and Mexico as part of this project next week. It will be her first official foray into in-person, in-country discussions about the problems that drive Central Americans to seek asylum in the United States.
According to the officials, Harris and her staff have made it clear that they want to concentrate their diplomatic efforts in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where they believe they will be more successful in addressing the root causes of migration, such as economic despair.
One example is Harris’ recent commitments to invest in the Northern Triangle from 12 private companies and organizations.
Harris has admitted that the task she has been given is difficult and will take time to complete. “We have to give people some sense of hope that if they stay, that help is on the way,” she told CNN’s Dana Bash. “It’s not going to be solved overnight; it’s a complex issue. If this were easy, it would’ve been handled years ago.”
Former and current officials, as well as immigration experts, argue that the causes of migration and the border surge are inextricably linked, and that while addressing the reasons people choose to migrate to the United States is important, it cannot be separated from what is happening at the border.
“You can’t divorce the border from Mexico or Central America or the interior of the US,” said John Sandweg, a former senior Homeland Security official who served in the Obama administration. “It is all one system.”
“Everything you’re doing in Central America is always towards an eye on the border and what’s happening in the United States,” said Cris Ramon, an immigration consultant. “With the current dynamics in migration, what’s happening at the US-Mexico border has implications in the Northern Triangle and vice versa.”