The vice president laughed. As sometimes can happen, controversy followed.
Air Force Two had just touched down in Florida, and reporters on the tarmac hustled over to pose their questions. Would she visit the southern border to monitor the migrant surge first-hand? “Not today,” Kamala Harris replied. Then she let out the laugh, the kind of chuckle that sometimes happens when the vice president is pushed on an uncomfortable topic.
Of course, that wasn’t all. Harris said much more.
She said that she had been to the border before and “I’m sure I will again.” She reiterated that now is not the time for migrants to come to the U.S. She said, just as the White House has for weeks, that while the new administration “will enforce the law,” they would address “the root cause” of the influx.
The longer answer did not play on a cable news loop. The laugh did.
It was evidence, Republican were quick to insist, that the vice president was not taking the situation seriously. It was more likely the result of misunderstanding: President Biden had deputized Harris to lead diplomatic relations with countries that are the source of the surge, not to deal with the crisis at the border.
The episode illustrates just how fraught the issue has become. Polling shows that the public just wants the problem to be addressed.
According to a new survey of more than 2,000 registered voters by RealClear Opinion Research, 70% of Americans want the new administration to “deal with the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.” It is among their top concerns, second only to getting the pandemic under control.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified Monday that the vice president “will be helping lead that effort, specifically the root causes — not the border, there’s some confusion over that.” There is also risk. While Harris has been tasked with handling the main drivers of the surge, the immediate situation at the border could influence her own White House ambitions someday and the midterm elections next year.
Americans are still feeling out their new vice president. According to the RealClear poll, 48% reported a favorable opinion of Harris versus 44%, unfavorable. Biden is not waiting for the public to more definitively make up their minds. Harris already has “five other major things she’s handling,” by the president’s own count, but the president announced last week that on top of all of that he has deputized her to lead negotiations with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, from which the migrants are fleeing.
“It’s not her full responsibility,” Biden explained to reporters, but “when she speaks, she speaks for me.”
Stemming the surge is a mammoth task with no easy answers despite an impatient public eager for a solution. Still, “she is qualified to do the job,” Chuck Rocha said of the decision to tap Harris. He helmed Latino outreach for Sen. Bernie Sanders in both of that candidate’s presidential bids, and Rocha credits Harris for being “a staunch advocate of the progressive wing of the immigration movement.”
The political operative warned, however, that expectations should be tempered: “It has been an issue that we have been trying to fix for generations, one that I don’t think any one person can totally solve.”
Biden knows this better than most because when he had the job Harris holds now, he undertook a not-so-different mission amid an earlier surge of migrants, many of them unaccompanied children. On a tour of Central and South American nations in 2014, he offered U.S. help to root out corruption, provide economic opportunity, and ensure safety in the North Triangle nations.
“We have to deal with the root causes,” Vice President Biden told reporters gathered for a press conference in the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, echoing the exact phrase he now uses seven years later.
Biden put his foreign policy experience toward the top of his resume while on the campaign trail. Now President Biden has given Vice President Harris the opportunity to build hers, Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice and a longtime veteran of immigration fights in Washington, told RCP. “This is essentially a foreign policy challenge for her,” he said “and it seems to me that her appointment signifies that this administration is serious about following through on its regional plan.”
The political risk is significant. “I worry about her getting blamed or being put in a position where it's gonna be difficult to get everything or get this problem fixed in a short term or long term,” Rocha noted. “With her being a natural fit for a run for president herself, at some point, it puts her in an untenable position of a fight that has been going on through multiple presidencies.”
Republicans are ready to pin the situation on the vice president. “The majority of the American people, unlike Kamala Harris, know the border crisis is not a laughing matter,” Sen. Ted Cruz told RCP.
“The fact Kamala Harris has not visited the border,” the Texas senator added, just days after leading a Republican delegation to an area along the Rio Grande, “is evidence that neither Joe Biden nor Harris wants to accept responsibility for the crisis their open border polices created.”
Attacks such as Cruz’s stem from a deliberate mischaracterization, a senior White House official told RCP: “The border is not the task the president has given her. The task that is at hand for the vice president is looking at the ‘why,’ and how can we incentivize people to stay in their country; what other economic opportunities can we create in those countries so that people want to stay.”
The current surge has created a headache for an administration that would much rather focus on its response to the coronavirus pandemic. The situation now threatens to overshadow other parts of the Biden agenda, though he campaigned on a promise to reverse his predecessor’s immigration policies, which he and Harris characterized as cruel and inhumane.
Biden moved quickly to remove Trump’s fingerprints from U.S. immigration policy beginning on day one, suspending construction of the border wall, proposing a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, and ordering a 100-day moratorium on deportations. Republicans argue that those changes and the new president’s rhetoric have fueled the current spike.
Meanwhile, the administration scrambles to get a hold of the immediate situation, including finding resources to house the nearly 10,000 unaccompanied children currently in federal care. According to administration documents leaked to Axios, the crisis – or “challenge,” as officials prefer to call it -- is likely to get worse before it gets better: an anticipated increase from 16,000 children crossing unaccompanied this month to 26,000 a month by September.
Back on the tarmac in Florida, Harris seemed confident that the administration could get a grip on the current challenge while also making long-term changes.
"While we are clear that people should not come to the border now, we also understand that we will enforce the law," the vice president said, “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.”