Vice President Kamala Harris’ immigration work has become the target of critics with a singular question: when will she visit the southern border?
The question has hounded the vice president, who on a trip to Mexico this month relented and said she would visit at some point while emphasizing that as a former California official she had been to the area.
Allies of the vice president say a border trip would not douse the criticism, which is mainly coming from Republicans, and that Harris should go on her own time frame.
Their advice to Harris is to ignore the naysayers and stay centered on the substance — addressing the factors that are causing Central American migrants to leave their home countries and travel to the U.S. border.
“She cannot be distracted by Republicans attacking her on this issue. They have made a decision that they’re going to attack her on this issue,” said the Immigration Hub executive director Sergio Gonzales, who was a senior policy adviser to Harris when she was a senator. “She is going to continue to, I think, focus on the policy work that she needs to do in order to be successful in driving progress in the region.”
Harris is under increasing pressure to visit the border, despite the White House repeatedly saying her role is to address the “root causes” of migration from Northern Triangle countries and lead the administration’s diplomatic and humanitarian efforts in the region.
“I think she should go to the border to get that off her back,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told McClatchy. The senator, who has been at the forefront of bipartisan immigration reform efforts, said Harris should meet with Border Patrol agents and lawmakers who are pursuing a comprehensive overhaul.
Republicans in the House of Representatives wrote to President Joe Biden to urge him to put someone else in charge of the “border crisis” in a letter late last week that also recommended Harris speak with migrants in border facilities and patrol agents. Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar has invited Harris to join him on a trip to the border, telling the vice president in a letter it is “critical” that she meet with residents of border communities.
Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, said he would be visiting the border on June 30 to “hopefully shine a spotlight” on the effect that Biden and Harris’ policies are having on border security. He referred to the border in a statement as an “unmitigated disaster zone.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this month that the White House would not be taking its cues from Trump and most of the Republicans who are criticizing the administration on the issue.
“We’re not taking our guidance and advice from them,” Psaki said, “but if it is constructive and it moves the ball forward for her to visit the border, she certainly may do that.”
BEYOND THE CRITICISM
Instead of a border visit that would largely be a photo op, Democratic strategists and immigration experts say Harris’ time would be better spent highlighting the administration’s efforts to reduce and manage the flow of migration and improve operations at the border and associated facilities.
The administration last week expanded a program that reunites children in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras with parents who have resettled in the United States.
“She’s going to have to look beyond the criticism and try to get back to the substance,” said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.
She argued that Harris’ role is not to act as “border czar,” rather it is to convene people around the issue. “She’s the vice president of the United States. She’s not a political candidate running for office using the border as a backdrop in order to score political points,” Brazile said.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, said, “it would be wiser” for the administration to have Harris, who met last week with Temporary Protected Status designees and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, talk about the administration’s overall approach to immigration issues than to continue denying she works on border policy.
“I think they tried too hard to distinguish the root cause work from their regional migration strategy,” he said.
He encouraged Biden and Harris not to pay attention to the “white noise” coming from conservatives. “I think the best way to respond to it is not to be afraid of it, not to engage it, but just to do your job and to own what you’re doing.”
In surveys, immigration has consistently been a problem area for Biden and his administration. A poll this month showed voters have mixed views on the issue when it comes to Harris. She had a 41 percent approval for her handling of immigration in the Spectrum News-Ipsos poll, with 40 percent disapproving of her approach.
“It’s the one thing that might be holding them back from better approval numbers,” said Chris Chmielenski, deputy director of NumbersUSA, a group that is against amnesty and supports stricter immigration enforcement.
Chmielenski said the Biden administration’s words and actions do not match up. It has rolled back Trump-era restrictions on migration — even as Harris and other administration officials have told migrants not to come because the United States will enforce its immigration laws.
‘PLAYING THE LONG GAME’
Harris’ message during her trip to Central America was criticized by conservatives and progressives. She laughed off a question about visiting the border during an NBC interview before committing to a border trip during a news conference later.
“I haven’t been to Europe,” Harris told NBC. “And I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”
Supporters of the vice president expressed frustration at what they view as a fixation on asking Harris about visiting the border. Harris’ office declined to comment.
“There could be really no more complicated issue than this,” Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, a principal at Dewey Square Group, said. “And that’s why I think they’re playing the long game. This is not something that is going to be fixed overnight. We did not get into this mess overnight.”
The political instability, corruption, violence, poverty and crime that have troubled countries in the region will only improve with sustained efforts over the next decade, experts say.
Achievements like the agreement Harris secured with corporations such as Microsoft and Mastercard to invest in Central American countries are a better way to judge her approach in the near-term, they said.
“I think the win here for Vice President Harris is to act in accordance to what she believes is best for the United States, not what’s best for Republicans or the far left,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic strategist and principal at Bendixen & Amandi.
As long as she “does not succumb to the political temptations of trying to appease groups that are likely to never be appeased, and does what’s best for the country, that’s the most successful core she can operate under,” he said.
Jess Morales Rocketto, executive director of Care in Action, said she was skeptical that a border visit would lead to progress, even if Harris sought to tackle the issue that way.
“If politicians going to the border could solve all of our problems, as a person who has been working day to night on the border for literally years, I would have a trip going there every single day, “ she said. “There is nothing about having her go there that will … make us snap our fingers and make it better.”
Francesca Chambers has covered the White House for more than five years across two presidencies. In 2016, she was embedded with the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. She is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.