In her first trip to the U.S.-Mexico border as vice president, Kamala Harris on Friday attempted to broadcast a shift to a more humane immigration policy after the hard-line approach of former President Donald Trump.
As part of her ongoing efforts to address the root causes of migration, Harris visited El Paso, Texas — a location chosen because of its role in some of the most stringent Trump-era policies.
“It is here in El Paso that the previous administration’s child separation policy was unveiled,” she told reporters, also noting the prior administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which required asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims were adjudicated. “And so we’ve seen the disastrous effects of that right here in this region.”
Harris was accompanied by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime advocate of immigration overhaul, and Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Texas Democrat whose district includes El Paso. The group toured a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, received an operational briefing and met with advocates from faith-based organizations and legal service providers.
The vice president also made an unannounced stop to a port of entry, where she met with five Central American girls, ages 9-16, who drew pictures for her and told her what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Harris said meeting the girls “reminds me of the fact that 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,” she said.
Harris also said the El Paso trip reinforced her belief that the historically high border crossings which have strained government resources in recent months are best addressed by focusing on the reasons migrants leave their home countries.
Earlier this month, she traveled to Mexico and Guatemala to meet with leaders, unveiling plans to provide aid to Central American countries to improve the conditions there.
“I strongly believe that most people don’t want to leave home,” Harris said during Friday’s news conference. “And when they do, it is because either they are fleeing some harm or because to stay means that they cannot provide for the basic necessities of their family.”
The visit by Harris comes after months of criticism from congressional Republicans, many of whom made trips to the border themselves while hammering the vice president for not going in person. But Harris told reporters shortly after landing “it was always the plan to come here,” underscoring her comments earlier in the month about visiting the border.
When plans for her visit were unveiled earlier this week, Republicans said Harris should have visited the Rio Grande Valley or another area with higher migration than El Paso.
“Vice President Harris is traveling 2000 miles today to El Paso, about 700 miles from the Rio Grande Valley, the epicenter of the #BidenBorderCrisis,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, tweeted Friday. “Of the 2000 mile US-Mexico border, the Texas-US border is about 1200 miles.”
The Biden administration has taken several steps to undo Trump-era immigration policies, including a public health directive under which unaccompanied children were turned away at the border — although it is still being used to expel single adults and some families.
The comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system that President Joe Biden campaigned on, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for around 11 million undocumented immigrants and make a slew of other changes to the nation’s immigration system, remains elusive.
Although bipartisan talks in the Senate are ongoing, Republicans have balked at providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants absent stronger border security, and Democrats are gearing up to make changes on their own through budget reconciliation.
Durbin hinted at the need for broad legislation to change the current immigration system as well as efforts to address the root causes of migration.
“When it comes to immigration reform. It has been 35 years since we’ve had an immigration bill,” the Illinois Democrat told reporters. “Many folks in the Senate and the House don’t want to lift a finger.”