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Harris Visits The Southern Border After Trying To Keep The Focus Away From It

Vice President Harris tours a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in El Paso, Texas. She has been under pressure from Republicans to visit the border to see conditions there.
Jacquelyn Martin
Vice President Harris tours a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in El Paso, Texas. She has been under pressure from Republicans to visit the border to see conditions there.

Updated June 25, 2021 at 2:47 PM ET

Vice President Harris visited the U.S.-Mexico border Friday in El Paso, Texas, after weeks of badgering by Republicans and at the urging of some Democrats, and she called for an end to the political "finger-pointing" over who's to blame for record numbers of people seeking asylum at the southern border.

Harris is in charge of the thorny issue of migration from Central America at a time when the Biden administration has struggled to keep up with a surge in migrants.

In March, President Biden tasked Harris with addressing the root causes of the migration crisis, a role he had when he was vice president during an earlier spike in border crossings. Although the White House was careful to emphasize that her role was meant to be a diplomatic one, working with Central American countries driving the arrivals, critics immediately asked why the "border czar" was avoiding the border. That's not a title she ever had.

Harris had been to the border as a senator, but the Biden administration had intentionally avoided having the vice president visit the border until now. "I'm glad to be here. It was always the plan to come here," she told reporters upon landing in El Paso.

Biden had promised a more humane approach to immigration enforcement than the Trump administration, and after he took office, the number of people crossing the border surged.

Harris toured a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, where she met with staff and five migrant girls ages 9 to 16. "They were asking me questions, 'How do you become the first woman vice president?' " she said, describing the girls as being hopeful and optimistic.

She said the meeting underscored the importance of looking at why people are fleeing their homes — and urged an end to "rhetoric and finger-pointing" over the issue.

"This issue cannot be reduced to a political issue. We're talking about children. We're talking about families. We're talking about suffering," Harris said. "Our approach has to be thoughtful and effective."

The root causes of migration are long-standing and seemingly intractable, including poverty, violence, natural disasters, climate change and corruption. But they are also less politically charged than border enforcement and the challenge of dealing with families and unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the United States.

Earlier this month, Harris visited Guatemala and Mexico to talk about those root causes and highlight U.S. programs aimed at giving people in Central America hope that "if they stay, help is on the way."

But the trip was quite nearly overshadowed by questions about why she wasn't also visiting the border — and Harris' response didn't help. In an interview with NBC's Lester Holt, she seemed dismissive of calls to visit the border, saying she hadn't been to Europe yet either, setting off GOP criticism.

Harris later explained she felt the focus on the border missed the point. "We cannot be simplistic and assume that there is only one element or way of approaching the overall problem," she said.

It would be very easy "to just say we'll travel to one place and therefore it's solved," Harris said. "I don't think anybody thinks that that would be the solution."

The vice president also toured a screening area for asylum applicants at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry, a busy pedestrian border crossing, and met with community members and immigration advocates.

Harris was joined by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, whose portfolio includes border enforcement; Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, an advocate for young immigrants known as DREAMers; and Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso. Both Durbin and Escobar are Democrats and administration allies.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and other critics have questioned why Harris would choose El Paso rather than the Rio Grande Valley, where many more of the recent border apprehensionshave taken place. Harris — doing some finger-pointing of her own — said that El Paso had been where the Trump administration had unveiled its family separation policy.

The Trump administration had run a pilot program in El Paso of arresting parents for illegally crossing the border and moving their children, including babies, into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Biden administration has sought to shift blame for the border conditions to the previous administration, arguing it left a broken immigration system, with efforts at addressing the root causes of migration neglected in favor of an enforcement-only approach.

The trip came a few days before former President Donald Trump is set to visit the border with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. In a statement, Trump claimed his plans prompted Harris' border stop, even though she had committed to going while in Mexico City earlier this month. Trump is expected to visit the border on Wednesday.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, whose district includes 300 miles of the border, had urged Harris to visit. Cuellar praised the trip when it was announced this week.

"By understanding the challenges faced on the ground, our government will be able to effectively address the pull factors leading migrants to make this dangerous journey," he tweeted.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.