WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris, after weeks of pressure from her political opponents, will visit the U.S.-Mexico border Friday, as part of her role addressing the root causes of migration.
The trip, her first since taking office, comes as Harris has struggled to navigate the thorny politics of her assignment and has had difficulty responding to Republicans who have criticized her for not going sooner.
Harris will tour the El Paso Central Processing Center, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, and meet with nonprofit organizations and legal service providers in the area. She will be joined by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who represents the El Paso area.
Harris is expected to give a speech during the visit and will take questions from reporters, her office said.
“[Harris’ trip to the border] is really about building on the work that she has been doing. This is not happening in a vacuum and it is not just to go and see,” said Symone Sanders, Harris’ chief spokesperson.
President Joe Biden announced in March that he was tasking Harris with leading diplomatic efforts to address the root causes of migration from Central America amid a rising number of people — many of them unaccompanied children — arriving at the U.S. southern border seeking asylum.
The assignment thrust Harris into the center of a divisive issue that has vexed lawmakers for decades, and the potential for political fallout sent aides close to her scrambling to clarify that the vice president was not directly responsible for the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Republicans were quick to call Harris the “border czar,” and they launched a fresh wave of attacks at her earlier this month during her first foreign trip to Mexico and Guatemala after she defended her decision to not yet visit the border in an interview with NBC. It would have been a “grand gesture,” she said, arguing that she had not yet been to Europe, either.
In the interview, Harris committed to visiting the border at some point but did not say when. Sanders said Thursday that the trip to the border was still about addressing the basic causes of migration.
Harris’ office announced her visit to the border shortly after former President Donald Trump said he would visit the southern border next week with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and a group of House Republican lawmakers. The White House shrugged off suggestions that Friday’s trip was politically motivated.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the administration decided now was an “appropriate time for her to go to the border” due to the “great deal of progress” that has been made on the conditions in the region, particularly on the housing of migrant children. The White House had said earlier that a vice presidential visit could be disruptive to the administration’s efforts.
Republicans criticized Harris’ decision to visit El Paso rather than other parts of the state like, the Rio Grande Valley, which see significantly more border crossings.
“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,” said Abbott, a Republican.
Sanders said that El Paso was selected in part because it was “representative of what is happening at the border from California, all the way to Texas and beyond,” but also for its symbolism.
“El Paso was also the birthplace, if you will, of the previous administration’s family separation policy. It was piloted there in 2017 before it was widely applied in 2018,” she said.
Although partisan politics are likely to hang over Harris’ trip Friday, she will also be forced to confront major policy issues. The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border seeking asylum has hit a record high under Biden, and his administration has struggled to move them out of border officials’ custody efficiently.
Most adults traveling alone have been quickly removed from the United States under Title 42, a public health order put in place by the Trump administration ostensibly to curb the spread of Covid-19. Biden has kept the order in place despite calls from some Democrats and immigration advocates to end it.
“We know that we are increasing vaccination rates and that there’s going to be a day when the order is no longer needed,” said Tyler Moran, special assistant to the president for immigration for the Domestic Policy Council. “I’ll just note that we still are in the midst of a pandemic.”
While Friday will be Harris’ first time to the border as vice president, she made a number of visits as senator and as attorney general of California.
Rohini Kosoglu, domestic policy adviser to the vice president and one of Harris’ longest serving aides, said that Harris “has spent her career fighting for immigrants.”
“None of this is new,” she said.