Vice President Kamala Harris said she plans to visit Mexico and Guatemala “sometime soon” as part of her new White House role in combat the “root causes” of the surge of migrants crossing the southern border, but has no immediate plans to visit the border itself, despite facing intense criticism for her apparent lack of action on the ever-growing man-made crisis.
Speaking with reporters ahead of a virtual roundtable meeting she convened Wednesday with her National Security Adviser Nancy McEldowney along with a slate of outside immigration experts and advocates, Harris announced her upcoming traveling plans, including her first trip to the Northern Triangle, a region of Central America that includes Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, as well as stops including Mexico and Guatemala.
“Our focus is to deal with the root causes, and I’m looking forward to traveling, hopefully, as my first trip, to the Northern Triangle — stopping in Mexico and then going to Guatemala sometime soon,” Harris added.
The Vice President cited COVID-19 restrictions and other constraints as excuses her delegation faced in restricting them from planning the visit, saying she would travel “as soon as possible” but declined to provide the exact timeline of when the trip will take place.
When asked if she intends to make plans to travel to the border to see the situation firsthand, Harris clarified that such a visit isn’t necessarily part of her responsibility role as border czar, stressing that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who recently made his third visit to the border region, is the one tasked to address the situation occurring at the border while reiterating that she will be playing a different role.
“So, as I mentioned to the experts, the President has asked Secretary Mayorkas to address what is going on at the border. And he has been working very hard at that, and it’s showing some progress because of his hard work,” Harris said. “I have been asked to lead the issue of dealing with root causes in the Northern Triangle, similar to what then-Vice President did many years ago.”
“I will tell you that these are issues that are not going to be addressed overnight, in terms of the root causes issue. A large part of our focus is diplomatic, in terms of what we can do, in a way that is about working with these countries,” Harris continued, mentioning recently phone calls she had with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador to discuss the “root causes” of the crisis.
She added, “But these are areas of focus for a very important and good reason. We must address the symptoms, and that is what is happening with the team of folks who are working on the border, led by Ali Mayorkas. But we also have to deal with the root causes, otherwise, we are just in a perpetual system of only dealing with the symptoms.”
Harris’s announcement clearly was intended to respond to the mounting criticisms Republicans have used against the Biden administration to highlight their lack of priorities and absence in addressing the crisis they are also struggling to handle amid the historic surge in migrants to the border. Republicans have blamed the president for taking the unprecedented step on his first day in office by rolling back many of Trump-era immigration policies that prompted a flood of illegal migrants from Central America and Mexico at the border, including thousands of unaccompanied minors.
In March, Border officials recorded a 20-year high of 172,000 migrants apprehended at the southern border, a 71% increase since February 2021. Custom and Border Patrol (CBP) noted a “significant increase” of unaccompanied minors, recording nearly 19,000 in custody in the month of March — doubling February’s number of 9,297 minors. In the last three months for the fiscal year 2021, CBP recorded a total of 569,800 encounters — a 24% increase compared to the same time period in 2020 and a 34% increase compared to 2019.
The White House dismissed GOP criticism of Harris, insisting that the Vice President is busy behind the scenes conducting “high-level diplomatic work,” rather than being concerned in making a border appearance.
“This is diplomatic work that ultimately, over the long term, will address the migration issues we’re seeing. It’s not an assignment to ‘handle the border,’” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said during an MSNBC interview Wednesday. “What she’s doing is high-level diplomatic work that is incredibly important to our economic stability in the hemisphere.”
The virtual meeting was Harris’ first immigration-related meeting, going 21 consecutive days since President Biden put her in charge to address the diplomatic measures related to its “root causes” as the crisis at the border heats up.
Her office provided background info on what the experts who they stated will be “offering assessments and recommendations for the region,” are expected to cover in the meeting with a focus on issues including “the root causes of migration, humanitarian assistance, economic development, climate resilience, transparency, and good governance.” The experts in Wednesday’s meeting included experts from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank; Oxfam, a global nonprofit movement focusing on global poverty; the Migration Policy Institute, the Atlantic Council, an American Atlanticist think tank group; Natural Resources Defense Council, an international environmental advocacy group; Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental organization; and the Latin America Working Group, the nation’s longest-standing coalition.
Along with the task of focusing on the “root causes” of migration, Harris will also soon be taking over the work from Biden’s border coordinator, Roberta Jacobson who announced that she will be stepping down at the end of the month, despite announcing plans a week prior to visit Central America countries to work with government officials on reducing the struggles the Biden administration faces confronting the record level surge of migrants.