Touring the Border, Harris Requested Questions, and Had Few Solutions

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WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris made her first visit to the southern border since taking office on Friday, responding to Republican criticism and meeting with lawyers urging her to explain why the Biden administration is not ending Trump-era restrictive migration policies would have.

“We can take all of these perspectives into account and have meaningful good public order if we just stop rhetoric,” Ms. Harris told reporters after a four-hour visit to El Paso. “You can’t just react to a problem without solving it at its roots. Let’s just agree to that. “

During her trip, she was confronted with an issue that has preoccupied the government for months and now linked to her own political future after President Biden tasked her with tackling the root causes of migration. But to all the questions she asked from reporters, immigration advocates, and even a group of imprisoned migrant children – whom she met behind closed doors – the Vice President had few answers.

In a private meeting, she heard from immigration supporters who said they did not understand why the Biden administration had not yet honored promises to reverse Trump-era policies such as Title 42. Several urged Ms. Harris to end this rule, which would allow expulsion of migrants, including asylum seekers, on public health grounds.

“We did this very forcefully,” said Fernando García, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, who attended the meeting, in an interview. “She asked how we thought it could happen. She was looking for answers. “

The Biden government is working on phasing out Title 42, but on Friday Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the Homeland Security Secretary who accompanied Ms. Harris to El Paso, told reporters that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would ultimately decide.

“It’s a public health decision,” said Mr Mayorkas. “It is based on the welfare of the American public.”

However, the agency has put political questions to the White House.

In a way, the trip was remarkable for what Mrs. Harris didn’t do: visit a tent complex in nearby Fort Bliss where migrant children are held. (When she was traveling to Texas, the Biden government announced that Xavier Becerra, Secretary of State for Health and Human Services, would be traveling there next week.)

“She will check the box to go to the border,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who wrote a letter to the vice president last week asking them to visit the border, said in an interview. Mr Cuellar said his letter went unanswered.

Ms. Harris stopped at the Customs and Border Protection processing center, where she received a briefing from officials and asked questions about the technology used to process people who illegally cross the border.

She also said she met with young girls arrested at the Paso del Norte port of entry, a meeting that was not announced and kept secret. Ms. Harris said the girls reminded her that the issue should not be reduced to partisan politics.

“They asked me, ‘How do you become the first female vice president?’” Said Ms. Harris. “It also reminds me that this issue cannot be reduced to a political issue. We talk about children, we talk about families, we talk about suffering. “

Human rights and immigration lawyers have attacked the von Biden government for not doing enough in the first six months to reopen the border to asylum seekers, reunite unaccompanied children with families, and provide the appropriate facilities to house detained migrants. In a report released last week, human rights group Amnesty International said the Biden government had failed to deliver on some of its early promises.

“Rebuilding an immigration system takes time, but almost six months later the government still has to deliver the promised changes,” the report said. “Regardless of the situation or who runs the administration, the government cannot free itself from its human rights obligations.”

Still, some Democrats praised Ms. Harris, saying her trip showed a commitment to finding solutions, including a push for a bipartisan immigration overhaul, an effort that has escaped modern presidents.

“Your presence in El Paso today is a sign of your concern and commitment to meaningful immigration reform,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, the judicial committee chairman who stood next to her on the pavement in El Paso. “And I would like to join her and say that Congress must do its part.”

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The visit came together quickly after Ms. Harris was criticized on her trip to Mexico City and Guatemala, where NBC’s Lester Holt explained to her why she was not at the border. She responded by calling the visit a “grand gesture” and pointing out that she had not been to Europe either – responses that confused her critics and members of the administration.

Although her office denies politics played a role, the El Paso stop has some meaning. The city is a major port of entry and has intricate ties to former President Donald J. Trump, who days after Ms. Harris will be traveling to the border with Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

As president, Trump called El Paso “one of the most dangerous cities in our nation” and castigated it as overrun by immigrants and crime. It is usually one of the safest cities in the United States. In 2019, after 22 people were killed in a Walmart and the white suspect warned of a “Hispanic invasion,” Trump was greeted with protests as he met with the victims’ families.

On Wednesday, a group of House Republicans said they would join Mr. Abbott and Mr. Trump on their trip, a move to put more pressure on the Biden administration, which has been trying to get Mr. Trump’s “zero.” -Tolerance “to eliminate immigration At the same time, they warn migrants not to travel to the United States.

The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border has reached a record high under the Biden administration, and officials have struggled to get them quickly out of cramped facilities and into the care of family members. An increase in single adult arrests – about 121,000 last month – has offset a slight decrease in the number of unaccompanied minors and families traveling north, according to Customs and Border Protection data.

As she was preparing to leave El Paso, Ms. Harris was asked about criticism for visiting El Paso instead of the lower Rio Grande Valley, which is believed to be the center of the current migration surge. The Vice President, who spent her visit pleading for party politics to be removed from the conversation on immigration, pointed to Mr Trump to make her point.

“Here in El Paso, the previous government’s child separation policy has been implemented,” she said. “We have seen the disastrous effects here in this region.”

Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Eileen Sullivan contributed the coverage.