Weeks before announcing her first official visit to the U.S.-Mexico border as vice president, Kamala Harris dismissed the notion that the “grand gesture” of an in-person trip was critical to addressing the root causes of migration from Central America.
But one week after the conclusion of her first appearance at the border as vice president, even supporters of the administration’s immigration policies are concerned that the trip was little more than a photo opportunity.
“Every day that goes by without more action is a day too many for the individuals caught up in these failed policies and systems,” said Efrén C. Olivares, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, who said that while the Biden administration has made moves to dismantle much of President Donald Trump’s legacy on immigration, it has been stubbornly resistant on some policies that would be easy to change.
“The vice president’s time is valuable, and nobody was expecting her to rush to the border half-cocked—she’s not Trump,” a former immigration adviser to then-Sen. Harris told The Daily Beast, calling the lack of follow-up both surprising and disappointing. “But unless there’s a tangible win for the issues she’s been so forceful in advocating—like announcing increased foreign aid to the Northern Triangle or a wholesale rescinding of Title 42 after visiting young girls at the processing center—it’s a photo op.”
Advocates singled out the continued enforcement of Title 42, a 1940s-era provision of U.S. law that allows the government to prohibit entry into the country by individuals who may pose a health risk. Under the Trump administration, Title 42 was enforced to effectively cease all entry into the United States from Mexico, legal or otherwise—a policy that the Biden administration has continued to enforce, despite growing consensus from public health experts that Title 42 is actually exacerbating the humanitarian crisis at the border.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas has defended the policy despite those criticisms, calling Title 42’s enforcement necessary “to manage the public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.” But as the nation rapidly nears President Joe Biden’s self-announced date for resuming normalcy as the pandemic abates, advocates had hoped that the border visit would demonstrate to Harris and the administration that the policy was doing more harm than good.
“We have called for the end of Title 42 and have pending lawsuits,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “We hope the Vice President came away from her visit with the realization that the Biden administration’s decision to retain the Trump administration’s illegal and inhumane Title 42 border policy is having a devastating effect on asylum seekers, including families and young children.”
Advocates for easing Trump-era border policies aren’t the only ones frustrated by Harris’ appearance at the border last week, which entailed a trip to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in El Paso and a screening area for asylees at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry.
“It was a photo op. She had no intention of going to the border,” said Tom Homan, former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in an appearance on Fox Business after the trip. “She should have gone to the epicenter of the chaos, and she didn’t.”
Harris and the White House had spent months parrying requests for her to visit the U.S.-Mexico border after she was announced as the administration’s point person on “stemming the migration to our southern border,” as Biden put it in March.
“There are many factors as to why people leave in the first place,” Biden said, noting economic, political and environmental instability in the Northern Triangle that has coincided with “draconian” cuts to U.S. aid to the region. “This new surge we’re dealing with now started with the last administration, but it’s our responsibility to deal with it humanely, and to stop what’s happening.”
Harris visited Mexico and Guatemala earlier this year, part of her stated focus on addressing the “root causes” of migration from Central America, but was publicly resistant to appearing herself at the U.S.-Mexico border, the region at the center of the crisis itself.
“We have to deal with what’s happening at the border, there’s no question about that—that’s not a debatable point,” Harris told NBC’s Lester Holt on June 8. “But we have to understand that there’s a reason people are arriving at our border and ask ‘what is that reason,’ and then identify the problem so we can fix it.”
Later in that interview, asked whether she personally had plans to visit the border, Harris was more overtly dismissive.
“We’ve been to the border. So this whole thing about the border—we’ve been to the border, we’ve been to the border.” When Holt noted that she had not, in fact, been to the border as vice president, Harris laughingly exclaimed: “And I haven’t been to Europe! And I mean—I don’t understand the point that you’re making.”
The trip—which reportedly came as a surprise to many on her staff, prompting rare internal venting from the vice president’s office about an “abusive environment” internally, according to Politico—was largely focused on an area where Trump-era policies had failed in securing the border while exacerbating the human rights crisis, despite hopes from some who met the vice president that the experience would lead to a change in Biden-era policies.
“The Central American archbishop and martyr, Oscar Romero, once said that ‘There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried,’” the Most Rev. Mark Seitz, Bishop of El Paso, told Harris upon her arrival. “ I invite you to touch the suffering flesh and hear the stories of those forced to approach the gates of this city seeking protection. We must stand with our neighbors in their struggle to be artisans of their futures."
In a news conference at the trip’s conclusion, Harris belabored the “root causes” focus of her work on immigration.
“My trip to Guatemala and Mexico was about addressing the root causes,” Harris said, using a phrase that she would repeat a dozen more times in her remarks. “The stories that I heard and the interactions that we had today reinforce the nature of those root causes: a lack of economic opportunity; very often violence, corruption, and food insecurity; and basic needs not being met, including a fear of cartels and gang violence. So, the work that we have to do is the work of addressing the cause—the root causes.”
But according to advocates, the “root cause” of the crush of migrants stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border in increasingly dangerous circumstances is a network of legacy policies making it impossible for asylum-seekers to enter the country safely—like Title 42. White House press secretary Jen Psaki admitted as much in remarks to reporters last Friday, noting the El Paso location as symbolic of the “problematic” nature of Trump’s immigration policies.
“I would say that El Paso has an interesting history,” Psaki said, calling the trip “an opportunity to draw a bit of a contrast with what we’re trying to accomplish.”
But with Title 42 still enforced, advocates said, that contrast is purely visual.
“To truly reform these systems, we do need action by Congress but it seems unrealistic that will happen given the current political rhetoric and brinksmanship we see from too many—illustrated well by the events of the last couple weeks.” Olivares said. But in the meantime, “people continue to suffer, from those stuck at the border to the individuals languishing in abusive ICE facilities across the country, and there is no doubt that the current administration could do more.”