Vice President Kamala Harris visited a border patrol facility near the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday and urged a focus on children and practical solutions to migration, in a trip meant to blunt Republican criticism of White House immigration policies.
The visit - her first since becoming vice president five months ago - came amid a rise in migrants caught crossing the border, which has sparked outrage from Republicans who favor the stricter immigration policies implemented by former President Donald Trump.
President Joe Biden, a Democrat, tasked Harris with spearheading his administration's handling of the broader issue of people fleeing Central American countries for the United States. She visited Guatemala and Mexico earlier this month.
"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," Harris said at the conclusion of her short trip.
U.S. authorities have made more than 1 million arrests of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border so far in fiscal year 2021, according to preliminary figures shared with Reuters.
Republicans have criticized Biden for rolling back restrictive Trump-era immigration policies even as arrests of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border have reached 20-year highs in recent months. They have also criticized Harris for not visiting the border sooner.
Harris was accompanied in El Paso by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Dick Durbin and Democratic Representative from Texas Veronica Escobar, who called the El Paso area the new "Ellis Island," a reference to the famed area in New York Harbor that processed millions of immigrants as they entered the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Immigration, and particularly the arrival of asylum seekers at the U.S. southern border, has been a hot-button issue for decades. Multiple attempts to reform U.S. laws and create a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants living in the country illegally have failed in Congress.
Democrats and activists have pressed Biden to further scale back enforcement and ensure humane treatment of migrant children and families arriving at the border.
During the trip, Harris also met with advocates who urged her administration to end a Trump-era policy that allows U.S. authorities to rapidly expel migrants to Mexico or their home countries, according to one of the participants, Fernando Garcia, the executive director at the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights.
Harris, who visited the border as a senator and attorney general from California, was assailed by Republicans when she visited Mexico and Guatemala as part of her efforts to reduce migration from the region into the United States.
Planned Trump visit to border looms
Harris's trip on Friday appeared to have been hastily put together days before a planned border visit by Trump.
A White House official said Harris's schedule was not dictated by Trump's moves. "I can assure you we don't take our cues from the former president," the official said.
"I said back in March I was going to come to the border, so this is not a new plan," Harris told reporters after landing in Texas. "Coming to the border ... is about looking at the effects of what we have seen happening in Central America."
Republicans criticized Harris for choosing El Paso rather than the area they point to as a hot spot for increased border crossings.
"While it's certainly positive that she is taking this step, I am disappointed that she is not going to the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) – the very epicenter of this crisis," acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf under Trump said in a statement.
Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, said many Republicans have embraced Trump's hardline immigration policies as they gear up for U.S. congressional elections in 2022, thinking it will win them voters.
"They believe that is something that can win them seats in 2022, so of course they're going to play it up," she said. "They're going to try to make it an issue."