Kamala Harris visited El Paso on Friday, in her first trip to the U.S.-Mexico border as vice president after relentless criticism from Republicans who accused her of avoiding the border and ignoring what they say is a crisis of illegal immigration and drug trafficking.
Harris, who was accompanied by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, visited the El Paso Border Patrol station and the El Paso del Norte Port of Entry, and met with representatives of non-governmental organizations that help immigrants during her four-hour trip to the border city.
Inside the border facility, Harris met with five immigrant girls who ranged in age from 9 to 16, according to her staff. Harris then told reporters that migrants don’t want to leave their homes and do so because they are “fleeing some type of harm.”
“This issue cannot be reduced to a political issue,” she said during a news conference.
Outside of the border facility, Harris brushed off criticism from Republicans that she had not visited the border since becoming vice president and did not understand immigration issues. She pointed to her trips earlier this month to Guatemala and Mexico as efforts to tackle the root causes of illegal immigration.
“The reality of it is that we have to deal with causes, and we have to deal with the effects,” said Harris, who visited the border as a U.S. Senator from California.
Symone Sanders, a Harris spokeswoman, said the new administration had inherited a “broken, gutted immigration system” that was inhumane.
“Since President [Joe] Biden and Vice President Harris have taken office, they have worked very diligently to address immigration at every single level, to establish legal pathways, restore an orderly, humane and fair system and means to apply for asylum,” Sanders said.
Pro-Trump demonstrators outside the border facility held signs that read: “Kamala do you hear their screams?” and “Kamala, you know Trump won.”
Harris did not visit Fort Bliss, where the government has erected the largest processing center in the country for unaccompanied migrant children. But while at the port of entry, she visited a screening area for asylum applicants who enter from Mexico.
Republican elected officials, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have said the Biden administration’s immigration policies — which in many cases reversed those of former President Donald Trump — have led to a surge of more migrants seeking to enter the United States.
There were 180,034 apprehensions last month at the U.S.-Mexico border, compared to fewer than 25,000 in late 2020, according to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. During the Trump administration, the highest recorded number of apprehensions was nearly 150,000.
Mayorkas said the country faced challenges at the border earlier this year but has made “extraordinary progress.”
Abbott, who earlier this month announced that Texas would build a state-funded border wall to stop illegal immigration, said earlier this week that Harris is “ignoring the real problem areas along our southern border that are not protected by the border wall and are being overrun by the federal government’s ill-thought-out open border policies.”
Abbott recently held a self-styled “border summit” in Del Rio, which he said is one of the areas most affected by the increase in immigration. There, he announced a state of disaster in 34 border counties and called for Department of Public Safety troopers to arrest migrants crossing into Texas for state offenses like criminal trespassing, human trafficking and smuggling.
On Friday, Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas also slammed Harris for visiting the border “800 miles from the epicenter” of migrant crossings in the Rio Grande Valley and saying the administration’s policies had “opened the floodgates to human smugglers and drug cartels.”
“If the Vice President came to Texas without a concrete plan to secure our border and is unwilling to reverse her administration’s failed immigration policies that caused the crisis, then her visit is nothing short of a glorified photo-op,” he said in a statement.
Republicans aren’t the only ones criticizing Harris. On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who represents a border district, said the vice president’s decision to visit El Paso was a “politically safe” move.
Cuellar said he was glad Harris was visiting the border, but she would get a better understanding of the region’s problems if she visited the lower Rio Grande Valley, where much of the increase in illegal crossings is happening.
“If you want to get a snapshot of where the action is happening, you go down to where the action is,” he said.
Abbott and Trump are planning to visit the Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday for a town hall on border issues.
But Escobar, who accompanied Harris on the trip, said El Paso is the right place to visit because it has borne much of the impact of an increase in migration to the U.S. in recent years. During the Trump administration, the city dealt with hundreds of migrant children who were separated from their parents while trying to enter the country and had to erect emergency shelters to house migrants.
“I and other advocates have long said El Paso is the new Ellis Island,” Escobar said. “We have been greeting asylum seekers and refugees at our nation’s front door for a very long time.”
Escobar touted the work of local and federal groups in the region who have helped immigrants who were stranded in the city during the Trump administration and said the Biden administration could learn a lot from those workers.
While in El Paso, Harris met with those groups, including the Hope Border Institute and the Border Network for Human Rights, which has called for the immediate closure of the Fort Bliss emergency shelter. Sanders said the administration has instructed U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to do a “thorough investigation” of conditions at the shelter.
Harris said at a roundtable meeting with the immigrants rights groups that she wanted to have a candid conversation with them and stressed that she wanted to learn what they believe leads migrants to leave their homes.
The Border Network for Human Rights and other groups have also called for the administration to end Title 42, a public health rule invoked during the Trump presidency that allows immigration agents to turn away migrants seeking to enter the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayorkas said during the trip that a decision will be made based on data being reviewed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Escobar said presidential action on immigration is important, but added that Congress must play its part by creating pathways to citizenship and asylum for immigrants who seek them.
“My Republican colleagues are more interested in walls and criticism of our vice president than about real meaningful solutions,” she said.