VP Kamala Harris pushes back at immigration critics during visit to US-Mexico border

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After a barrage of criticism from Republicans for not going to the southern U.S. border, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to El Paso, Texas, on Friday, saying the visit was about “looking at the effects of what we have seen happening in Central America.”

After a walking tour of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center, a visit to a port of entry and a meeting with advocates from faith-based organizations and shelter and legal service providers, Harris spoke about the connection between the root causes of migration and issues at the border.

“If you want to deal with the problem, you can’t just deal with the symptom of the problem, you’ve got to figure out what caused it to happen,” she said.

The border visit has done little to silence the vice president’s immigration critics, but Harris pushed back at them during her trip.

“We can take all of these perspectives into account and have meaningful good public policy if we just stop the rhetoric and the finger pointing and do what we need to do,” she said.

Harris is leading administration efforts to slow migration to the southern border from Central America through diplomatic means and efforts to improve the quality of life for residents of those countries.

Republicans complained this week that Harris, a former California senator and attorney general, waited too long to travel to the border and would not be going to the area with the most problems.

“I’m glad she’s finally going to the border,” Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told McClatchy before the trip. “But I don’t think it’s coincidental that she’s headed to El Paso.”

Cruz pointed out that El Paso was nearly 800 miles from the Rio Grande Valley, where a Border Patrol tent facility for migrant children and families is located. “She doesn’t want the TV cameras to see the kids in cages,” he said.

Others argued that El Paso was an appropriate stop for the vice president to highlight migration issues. The Department of Homeland Security ran a pilot program out of the city in 2017 that served as the basis for the Trump administration’s family separation policy. El Paso is also the site of a mass shooting at a Walmart in 2019 that left a total of 23 people dead. Police say the shooting suspect told them he targeted Mexicans.

“El Paso is on the border. The idea that Ted Cruz gets to say which part of the border is important versus which part of the border she’s going to is just more of the same silly politics and gamesmanship that the GOP has been involved in from day one,” Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration group America’s Voice, said. “It’s beyond parody.”

Harris’ senior advisor Symone Sanders said El Paso was chosen because it is representative of the broader border dynamics. She also called the city the “birthplace” of former President Donald Trump’s family separation policy.

“What is happening here in El Paso, really is, in many ways, highlights many of the facets on the issue of immigration,” Harris told reporters. “It is here in El Paso that the previous administration’s child separation policy was unveiled. And so we have seen the disastrous effects of that right here in this region.”

ENCOUNTERS ON THE RISE

Illegal border crossings are on the rise, causing overcrowding in existing border facilities and leading the U.S. government to create temporary shelters for arriving migrants.

Critics of the Biden administration say those problems are a direct result of relaxed restrictions.

The Democratic administration ended a policy put in place under Trump that required asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while they awaited court dates.

The United States currently accepts unaccompanied children into the country, but it turns away most other migrants under a health policy put in place by the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that in May, of the 180,034 people it encountered at the southern border, 62% were expelled under the health policy, known as Title 42.

At a border processing facility, Harris met five migrant girls between the ages of 9 and 16, her office said, during a portion of the trip that was not open to press. Harris said the children were “filled with optimism” though they are without their families.

“This issue cannot be reduced to a political issue. 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 said.

Her visit precedes a trip to the border that Trump intends to make on June 30 with Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Chad Wolf, former acting Homeland Security secretary during the Trump administration and a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that Harris was “cajoled” and “bullied, in a sense” into visiting the border by Trump, Abbott and other Republicans.

“There’s no way she would have gone on her own,” Wolf said. “And so now she’s going. That being said, she should have gone a long time ago. She needs to understand firsthand, she needs to see it and experience it, firsthand what’s going on.”

Sanders pushed back in a Thursday media call on suggestions that the trip was in response to Republican criticism following Harris’ trip to Guatemala and Mexico earlier this month or to get ahead of Trump’s scheduled border visit next week.

“This administration does not take their cues from Republican criticism nor from the former president of the United States of America,” Sanders said.

She told reporters that the timing of the trip was due to the vice president’s schedule and the groups she was meeting.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, accompanied Harris.

Mayorkas said the “vice president is leading our nation’s efforts to address the root causes” of migration and the “fundamental question of why people leave their homes.” He said his responsibility was to address “security management of our border.”

It is a distinction that Harris’ team and the White House have spent months trying to make.

Harris said it was important to visit the border after her earlier trip to Mexico and Guatemala. “But the reality of it is that we have to deal with causes, and we have to deal with the effects,” she said.

“So I’m glad to be here. It was always the plan to come here,” Harris said.

Sharry said this is “probably the best time and the best way” for Harris to go to the border, but the visit does not alleviate his concerns on immigration and refugee policy.

“She said she would go, she’s checking the box, I think it will make very little difference to anybody. Maybe it will make a difference in terms of how often she’s hounded with the question ‘when are you going to the border?’” he said.

McClatchy congressional correspondent David Lightman contributed reporting.

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