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In her first five months in office, Vice President Kamala Harris has learned at least one important lesson about immigration: You can run to the border, but you can’t run from the border.
That’s because sooner or later the border will find you. That’s especially true when you’re a U.S. elected official in 2021, whether you’re pandering to white nativists who want to keep out Central American refugees, or Latino activists who want to let more of them in.
This week, the border found Harris. The California Democrat — who never showed much interest in immigration while representing a border state in the U.S. Senate — finally made it to the U.S.-Mexico border. Harris paid a quick visit to a U.S. Customs Border Patrol central processing facility in El Paso, Texas. There, she received a briefing from officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Later, the Vice President met with immigrant advocates to hear their concerns before leaving “el chuco.”
That’s what the locals call El Paso — this gateway from Mexico which served, throughout the 20th Century, as Mexican Americans’ version of Ellis Island. The nickname is rumored to stem from the Pachuco zoot suit style that is believed to have originated in the El Paso area in the 1930’s.
My grandfather wasn’t a zoot suiter. He was a farm worker who lived a hand-scrabble life in Central California. His version of the American Dream passed through el chuco as he entered the United States from Chihuahua as a boy. He and his family came during The Mexican Revolution which lasted from 1910-1920, and that means they all came legally because a person couldn’t come illegally until after The Immigration Act of 1924.
There are millions of wonderful tales out here in the Southwest. They star Mexican Americans, and they’re set in places like El Paso, Las Cruces, New Mexico, Tucson, Arizona, or Las Vegas, Nevada. These are my peeps, and the only thing they love to share more than their food and their hospitality is their stories.
That’s why it’s sad that it took everything but an Act of Congress to get Harris to visit the Southwest — and, specifically, a locale she’s been avoiding like the coronavirus: the U.S.-Mexico border. She has been under pressure to make the trek to the international boundary — yes, by Republicans but also by Democrats — since March 24. That’s when President Biden said the following at a White House meeting on immigration: “I’ve asked her, the VP, today — because she’s the most qualified person to do it — to lead our efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle and the countries that help — are going to need help in stemming the movement of so many folks, stemming the migration to our southern border.”
To this day, three months later, it’s hard to know if Biden was aware that he was handing his #2 a political and public relations time bomb. As Biden said that day, he got a similar assignment from former President Barack Obama when Biden served as vice president.
What Harris seemed to understand intuitively was that no good could come from an awkward photo-op of the Vice President of the United States standing, with a clueless expression on her face, in front of a storage containers holding dozens of refugee kids.
That’s the scene this likely future Democratic presidential candidate was desperate to avoid. That’s what took Harris so long to get to the border, and why her aides have tried frantically over the last few months to change the subject. Team Harris has been desperate to spin her migration assignment as residing south of the border in faraway countries like Guatemala. They argued that that’s where she needed to tackle the “root causes” of the migration crisis.
Yes, because Harris’ recent foray there went so well, didn’t it?
Root causes, huh? For many Guatamalans — who have already suffered plenty due to violent gangs, hurricanes, poverty and corruption — having Harris show up recently only to instruct the desperate people down there to “not come” to the United States was probably as painful as a root canal.
In one respect, the stalling tactic backfired. Harris obviously didn’t want to draw attention to the border, and specifically not to her being at the border. But by putting off a visit — and even pushing back against liberal journalists who hounded her about when they should expect one — she ensured that, when she eventually got around to visiting the border, it would qualify as a major news event complete with a media circus.
But, in another way, Harris’ great border stall worked out pretty well. It gave the Department of Homeland Security — which was never equipped to run day-care centers for thousands of migrant youth — enough time to get out of the business of housing the nearly 20,000 unaccompanied minors who have been apprehended at the border in the first half of this year. Several weeks ago, DHS passed that hot potato over to The Department of Health and Human Services, which has dispersed the minors to makeshift holding facilities across the Southwest.
So, by the time Harris arrived for her tour of the U.S.-Mexico this week — with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in tow — there was nary a minor in sight. Mission accomplished.
Of course, timing isn’t everything. Sometimes, avoiding messy political scenes is like selling real estate: location, location, location.
The main reason that the Border Patrol facility in El Paso was so safe, secure, and sanitized, was because it was the wrong Border Patrol facility. The real action is 800 miles away in the Rio Grande Valley. If Harris had been politically brave enough to visit the U.S.-Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas — where you find the agents who act as the first responders to the migration crisis — she would have gotten a first-hand look and left with a whole different perspective.
Think about it. It’s fire season. God forbid, there is a wildfire in Arizona. Harris might try to survey the damage by heading to Alaska.
But Harris’ excellent border adventure was never about assessing the extent of the migration crisis or gaining a different perspective on the immigration issue. It wasn’t even about discovering the Southwest, and hearing the stories of those Mexican Americans who live there — about 70% of whom are registered Democrats, in large part because White Republicans out here vacillate between crazy and creepy when it comes to Latinos and immigration.
Harris’ trip was all about politics. It was about shutting up those Republicans, and some Democrats, who have badgered her over the last few months about not seeing the border. And it was about taking away a punchline from former President Donald Trump who — apparently unable to resist the racist catnip of issuing catcalls about immigration — is scheduled to visit a different part of the border next week.
If Harris hadn’t finally made her obligatory visit — even if was late, and to the wrong location — Trump would have had a field day attacking her for ducking out on what was really always going to be an essential part of assignment to help alleviate the migration crisis. We can expect Trump to attack Harris anyway, but now the barbs won’t carry as much sting.
It took a lot to introduce Kamala Harris to the border, and the border to Kamala Harris. No worries. Down the road, they’re sure to meet again.