Vice President Kamala D. Harris said Tuesday she’ll visit the southern U.S. border eventually, as she wrapped up a two-day trip to Mexico and Guatemala on the “root causes” of illegal migration, a mission that was largely overshadowed by her refusal to personally witness the problem back home.
A day after dismissing a possible visit to the southern border as a meaningless “grand gesture,” the vice president said in Mexico City that she will make such a trip.
“I’ve been to the border before, I will go again,” Ms. Harris told reporters. “But when I’m in Guatemala dealing with root causes, I think we should have a conversation about what’s going on in Guatemala.”
Ms. Harris said it was “short-sighted” for the administration to respond only to the crisis at the border “as opposed to addressing the cause.”
She and the White House changed their tune after Ms. Harris gave an interview to NBC News that was panned as defensive and somewhat flippant on the question of traveling to the border.
When anchor Lester Holt asked why she hasn’t visited the border, Ms. Harris replied with sarcasm, “And I haven’t been to Europe.”
She added: “I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making … I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”
Congressional Republicans and others say Ms. Harris must see the surge for herself to understand the problem and fix it. President Biden tasked his No. 2 with finding ways to stem the problem — part of a long and growing to-do list for Ms. Harris.
“She‘s not even in her home state of California, which has a border with Mexico. She‘s in Guatemala,” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said. “Imagine calling 911 when your home is on fire and watching as they hose down your neighbor’s house instead. That’s what it feels like.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, tweeted on Tuesday, “On her way back from Mexico City, VP Kamala Harris should stop by McAllen, Texas — a border community overwhelmed by illegal immigrants, drug cartels, and COVID risks. No guarantee that the flight serves cookies of her likeness, but it’s just a 2-hour plane ride.”
He was referring to cookies made in her likeness that Ms. Harris shared with reporters on Air Force Two on her way to Guatemala.
The White House also tried to tamp down the self-inflicted controversy.
“I expect that sometime she may go to the border,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of the vice president. “Her assignment was to work with countries and leaders in the Northern Triangle [Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador] to address root causes, address corruption [and] ensure we’re working together to address humanitarian concerns.”
Ms. Psaki said the administration doesn’t want advice on border and migration issues from the GOP.
“We’re not taking advice from former President Trump or most of the Republicans who are criticizing us on this, given they were all sitting there while we created this problem we walked into, both at the border and with the movement of migration that has been growing over the last year,” she said. “We’re not taking our guidance and advice from them. But if it is constructive and it moves the ball forward for [Ms. Harris] to visit the border, she certainly may do that.”
The vice president said she’s returning to the U.S. with “tangible” agreements with Mexico and Guatemala addressing corruption, poverty and lack of opportunity in Central America.
“Do I declare this trip a success? Yes I do,” she said.
Among those commitments is a pledge by the administration to spend $130 million on “labor reform” in Mexico.
Ms. Harris also cautioned that her meetings in Mexico and Guatemala won’t bring about a “quick fix” to the illegal migration problem in the U.S.
“We are not going to see an immediate return. But we’re going to see progress,” she told NBC. “The real work is going to take time to manifest itself.
In Mexico City, Ms. Harris witnessed the signing of an agreement on Tuesday to establish greater cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico on initiatives to limit migration from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
The vice president and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador watched at the Palacio Nacional as representatives of both nations signed the memorandum of understanding that calls for greater economic development in the Northern Triangle countries. The agreement is aimed at reducing the surge of migrants from Central America.
The vice president wore a mask at the ceremony. Her host did not.
“I strongly believe we are embarking on a new era,” Ms. Harris said later during a meeting with Mr. López Obrador. U.S. journalists said Mexican officials barred at least one of the reporters traveling with Ms. Harris from attending the photo-op of their meeting.
Asked by reporters if he would increase security at Mexico’s northern border with the U.S., Mr. López Obrador replied, “We are very pleased to have her here and we will touch on that subject, but always addressing the fundamental root causes [of migration].”
The Mexican president has blamed President Biden for the increase in migration, saying the Democrat created “expectations” that crossing the border would be easier than it was under the Trump administration.
U.S. authorities saw more than 170,000 encounters on the border in April, the highest level in more than 20 years.
U.S. special envoy Ricardo Zúñiga said the agreement with Mexico marks a new level of cooperation.
“It’s very important to show that the United States and Mexico are collaborating and trying to improve conditions on the ground among our neighbors, because of the importance that other countries in Central America have for both of us,” he told reporters traveling with the vice president.
Ms. Harris began her first trip abroad in Guatemala, where she received a cordial welcome mixed with demonstrations in the streets of Guatemala City. Her motorcade passed activists holding signs proclaiming “Kamala, Trump won” and “Kamala, Mind Your Own Business.”
• Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.