Vice President Kamala Harris made her first pilgrimage to the border Friday, watching Border Patrol at work in El Paso handling processing of illegal immigrants, then making a snap visit to a border crossing where aides said she saw other migrants who hoped to claim asylum in the U.S.
Ms. Harris was accompanied to Texas by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, whom she said was “doing a great job” in handling the record border surge.
Reporters accompanying Ms. Harris said she bantered with agents and officers and asked about their work. One told her they need to have funding, and another told her how much progress was made in improving conditions for illegal immigrant children from 2016, the Obama years, to 2019, the Trump era.
She was scheduled to meet later in the day with people who are running shelters that are assisting the illegal immigrants, including performing COVID testing and helping arrange transportation deeper into the U.S. She also was expected to speak to reporters in depth about what she saw, but as she landed she gave a brief preview.
“I’m glad to be here. It was always the plan to come here. And I think we’re going to have a good and productive day,” she said.
Her visit comes as the border situation is becoming more problematic. New reports of harsh conditions for immigrant children have sent officials rushing to the region. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced his own upcoming visit to Fort Bliss, which has been turned into an emergency shelter.
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And beyond the children, the border numbers remain disconcertingly high for the new administration.
Ms. Harris, a former California senator, had visited the border before becoming vice president but had resisted making a trip in this office, despite President Biden personally tapping her to help solve the surge.
For months, aides had insisted her purview was the international scene, negotiating with Central American countries and Mexico to try to curtail the flow of people leaving. She made a trip to the region weeks ago to talk over how billions of dollars in U.S. assistance might be spent.
With Friday’s visit, Republicans say she now owns responsibility for the state of the border itself.
Most security experts — and Border Patrol agents, who encounter the illegal immigrants — say the Biden administration has misdiagnosed the current surge.
They say that factors pulling the migrants to the U.S. are causing the higher numbers. Among those factors are the return of the policy of “catch-and-release” for migrant families.
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The Biden administration itself has acknowledged that’s true in some cases. It admits the record number of illegal immigrant children who’ve jumped the border this year to a more lenient policy toward them.
Administration officials have still claimed success in the case of the children, saying turning them back at the border as the Trump team did was inhumane. And the new administration, which faced accusations of kids in cells at the peak of the child surge this spring, has managed to cut the number in Border Patrol custody dramatically.
“As everyone knows, we faced significant challenges back in March, we’ve made extraordinary progress. I look forward to sharing with the vice president the progress we’ve made,” Mr. Mayorkas told reporters.
But thousands of children remain in the custody of HHS. Many are held in makeshift shelters with frequent lice outbreaks, where gang activity has been reported and where underwear and socks are in such short supply that girls are refusing to shower because they have nothing to change into afterward.
Those reports prompted Mr. Becerra to announce his own border visit.
Ms. Harris’s visit comes just days before former President Trump makes his own trip to the border for the first time since leaving office.
His aides say his planned trip, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, forced Ms. Harris’s hand.
Chad Wolf, who served as acting secretary at Homeland Security for Mr. Trump, said Ms. Harris’s visit was a welcome development, but also a missed opportunity.
She chose to go to El Paso in Texas’s far western tip. That’s hundreds of miles from the epicenter of the crisis in the Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas.
“Hopefully, Harris’ trip will be a working visit, not just border security tourism,” said Mr. Wolf.
Mr. Mayorkas, traveling with Ms. Harris, defended the choice of El Paso, saying he had recommended it and it was an active sector of the border.
He said it “provides the vice president with an opportunity to see the full array” of border challenges.