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Kamala Harris has returned to the US from her first foreign trip and big test since becoming vice-president – and taking over the hot-potato issue of immigration – battered by criticism over her harsh “Do not come” message to desperate migrants and her testy ambivalence over visiting the US-Mexico border.
Harris arrived back on US soil from a three-day trip to Guatemala and Mexico just as Joe Biden flew out to the UK on Wednesday on his first overseas venture since winning the White House.
His may be a higher-stakes visit aimed at reassuring European allies and confronting Russia after the divisive era of Donald Trump.
But Harris’s more short-haul foray was never going to be plain sailing, either with the aim being to tackle “the root causes” of hundreds of thousands of migrants making the dangerous trek to America’s southern border, seeking entry to the US.
Most are attempting unlawful entry or trying to appeal to the border authorities to allow them to apply for asylum through the US courts.
With factors such as poverty and government corruption, a legacy of war and dictatorship, and as much foreign hindrance as help in Central American politics over the decades, any trip by a new US president or vice-president is fraught with high risk of failure.
On top of that, newer trends such as increased migration forced by the climate crisis guaranteed that Harris was never going to achieve one-trip fixes.
But although her hosts declared her visits a success, the “get tough” stance she touted with leaders over corruption was overshadowed by an awkward interview and criticism from US progressive torchbearers such as the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over her stark remarks aimed at migrants.
Ocasio-Cortez called out Harris on Twitter, saying her comments were “disappointing to see”.
“First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100% legal method of arrival,” said the congresswoman, adding: “Second, the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”
Several human rights groups also spoke out to criticize Harris’s remarks.
With unlawful crossings to the US over the US-Mexico border accelerating during the first months of the Biden administration, as US border authorities reported they encountered nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children crossing in March, the pressure on Harris has been intense.
Biden put her in charge of dealing with the issue of the border in particular, within wider immigration policy, as the early weeks of his presidency featured stark reports and images of children crammed into detention centres on the US side of the border, with legal and social processing systems overwhelmed.
Overall, more than 170,000 encounters were reported on the border in April, between migrants, mostly from Central America, and the US authorities, the highest level in more than 20 years.
Harris, who has been under pressure at home to visit the US-Mexico border since she was given the role, but has not yet done so, focused her three-day visit on economic development, climate and food insecurity.
In Guatemala, the origin of almost half the migrants gathering at the US border in recent months, Harris and the president, Alejandro Giammattei, expressed optimism that they could work together.
The Biden administration has earmarked almost $4bn in commitments to help address the “root causes” of migration. Alongside that, Harris was also frank in her message, saying “the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home”.
But it was when Harris said in an address: “I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: ‘Do not come, do not come,’” that heads all over the US political and media landscape turned.
It is no different a message than people in the Biden administration have delivered publicly before. But the stark statement actually made in a country where people are driven to head to the US by desperation prompted a strong response.
Ocasio-Cortez described her comments as “disappointing” and noted that it is legal to seek asylum in the US from persecution in another country.
Harris responded only obliquely, saying: “I’m really clear: we have to deal with the root causes and that is my hope. Period.”
Harris was also forced to fend off criticism that she had yet to visit the US-Mexico border herself since becoming vice-president. Such visits are a perilous photo op for leaders looking to establish foreign and domestic policy credentials.
And she dealt with the topic awkwardly when asked in an early morning TV interview about why she hadn’t visited the border this year, saying she hadn’t been to Europe either.
“Well, we are going to the border,” Harris she added to NBC news anchor Lester Holt. “We have to deal with what’s happening at the border, there’s no question about that.”
Moving on from a short stay in Guatemala to Mexico City, Harris sought to assure poor and threatened populations of Latin America on Tuesday that the United States has “the capacity to give people a sense of hope” and is focused on “tangible” results “as opposed to grand gestures”.
The Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said Mexico was in a completely new phase of relations with the US.
Eduardo Gamarra, professor of international relations at Florida International University, told the Guardian it was an important trip. “Harris issued a very significant statement in terms of rebutting the Republicans’ position that Democrats are running an ‘open border’ policy, and she made it quite clear to Giammattei that the US is willing to invest but there have to be significant changes in the way corruption is handled,” he said.