Biden called Harris “the most qualified person” to lead the U.S. dialogue with Mexico and Central American countries “that are going to need help in stemming the movement of so many folks.”
“It’s not her full-responsibility job, but she is leading the effort because I think the best thing to do is to put someone who, when he or she speaks, they don’t have to wonder about, is that where the president is,” Biden said. “When she speaks, she speaks for me.”
The decision puts Harris in charge of one of the toughest problems facing the Biden administration, involving an issue that has vexed the last few presidencies. Harris until now lacked a specific portfolio, though Biden had said he wanted to put her in charge of pressing issues as they arose, a role he played for former president Barack Obama.
Harris is widely seen as a potential successor to Biden, and her new assignment gives her an opportunity to build her foreign policy credentials, strengthen her ties to the Latino community and resolve a high-profile problem. But the potential for failure is also clear, and a stumble could hurt her presidential ambitions.
Appearing with Biden on Wednesday, Harris echoed Biden’s increasingly tough warnings to would-be migrants and pledged to tackle the underlying economic and social conditions that are driving people to flee their home countries.
“While we are clear that people should not come to the border now, we also understand that we will enforce the law and that we also — because we can chew gum and walk at the same time — must address the root causes that cause people to make the trek,” Harris said.
The balance will not be easy. Human rights activists have raised concerns about migrants’ treatment at the border and the housing provided for children. If those worries do not subside, Harris could face backlash from a Democratic base that is already frustrated with Biden on immigration issues.
More broadly, there is no guarantee Harris’s talks with the leaders of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras will yield results.
For Biden, who oversaw similar immigration issues for Obama, the decision effectively creates a point person for dealing with the flow of migrants, potentially taking some of the heat off him as he addresses other priorities, such as the coronavirus pandemic and the economy. But it suggests the White House sees the border surge as a bigger problem than it sometimes conveys.
As one senior administration official put it, “Starting today, the Northern Triangle nations and Mexico will know there is one senior official dedicated to this effort.”
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the move before Biden announced it.
Harris will have two overarching goals in her new role, according to senior administration officials: She will be working to stem the flow of migrants and she will seek to establish a strategic partnership with Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The latter three are often called the Northern Triangle countries.
Republicans like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey wasted little time questioning Harris’s qualifications for the task and highlighting some of the liberal stances she took when she ran for president. “At no point in her career has she given any indication that she considers the border a problem or a serious threat,” Ducey said.
But on Wednesday, much of the attention was on the Biden administration’s struggles to house and quickly process unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border, as well as complaints that the administration is not being transparent about the border situation.
The delegation included Julissa Reynoso, who serves as chief of staff to first lady Jill Biden; Angela Ramirez, Biden’s legislative liaison with the U.S. House; Cindy Huang, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the HHS; and Tyler Moran, a top Biden immigration adviser.
The group also included several members of Congress. Among them was Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), who has been a vocal critic of the administration and has urged officials to consult local officials like him more often.
On Monday, Cuellar released photos he had received from inside a temporary border tent in Donna, Tex., that was operating well beyond capacity. The photos showed children placed in crowded areas divided by clear partitions, some huddled under foil blankets on modest bedding.
The White House delegation did not visit that facility, which is run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a law enforcement agency. The facility in Carrizo Springs is run by the HHS. Some Democratic lawmakers who were asked to join the delegation declined the administration’s invitation, according to people familiar with the planning.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is open to allowing reporters into other facilities as well. “This is just the first step in a process of providing greater access to the media,” she said.
Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Tex.) — who, like Cuellar, represents a district that touches the border — called on the White House to reconsider its decision to allow all unaccompanied children into the United States.
“One logical approach to this situation would be to return the older teenagers to their home country and provide funding for an effort supervised by the United Nations to properly care for those teenagers upon their return,” Vela said in a statement.
“Then, once the pandemic is under control, you could phase the program back in so that there would be some semblance of control over the process,” he added.
There are more than 16,000 unaccompanied migrant children in the custody of the HHS and CBP, nearly twice the previous record, according to the latest figures released by the government. Under pressure to be more transparent, officials provided fresh data Wednesday.
More sites that house migrant children could soon open in San Antonio and a site near El Paso. In San Antonio, Bexar County officials are in talks with the federal government to house migrant children at the Freeman Coliseum.
“What’s happening on the border, as we’ve seen before, is just an incredible human tragedy,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg. “So my hope is that what happens going forward is treated with the utmost compassion and care.”
Wednesday’s White House delegation visit came ahead of a planned trip to the Carrizo Springs facility by House Democrats on Friday. Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who represent Texas, are leading a Senate delegation to the border this week.
Silvia Foster-Frau and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.