Kamala Harris faces the most politically challenging moment of her vice-presidency on Friday when she visits Texas as part of her role leading the Biden administration’s response to recent increases in families and unaccompanied children migrating across the US-Mexico border.
While in El Paso, Texas, she will tour a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center near the international bridge that connects the western city with its twin city, Juárez, across the Rio Grande in Mexico.
She is expected to be greeted on arrival in El Paso early on Friday by the local Democratic congresswoman Veronica Escobar and she will hold a conversation with advocates from faith-based organizations, as well as shelter and legal service providers who help those arriving from, chiefly, Central America, seeking an escape from poverty, danger, corruption and the climate crisis.
The vice-president has faced months of criticism from members of both parties for declining to make the trip thus far and for her muddied explanations as to why, as well as her remarks on her first overseas trip to Guatemala, when she starkly spelt out the Biden administration’s message to those seeking sanctuary in the US: “Don’t come.”
Her comments “reinforced the years of attacks on the rights of refugees and asylum seekers by the previous administration”, Dylan Corbett, the director of a local non-profit organization that focuses on immigration policies and aiding migrants in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, told the Guardian.
Republicans have seized on the absence of Harris and the president, Joe Biden, from the border to paint the administration as weak on border security, seeking to revive a potent political weapon against Democrats in time for the 2022 midterm elections.
With former president Donald Trump visiting the area less than a week after Harris and the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, making increasingly rightwing remarks about immigration, Republicans will be watching the vice-president’s visit closely for fodder for further attacks.
Aside from party politics, CBP, the federal agency, recently reported nine deaths of migrants along the border just in the El Paso sector, but said they were only reporting the number of deaths where agents find the deceased individual or are involved in an emergency response. The actual number is likely to be higher.
Those are deaths such as by heatstroke as migrants trek through triple-digit desert heat, or falls from the 30t-high border wall.
Migrants who survive that fall are taken to a local non-profit organization, Annunciation House, which operates as a network of shelters, helping to connect migrants with family in the states and legal representation for asylum cases.
The injuries ranging from fractured ankles to head injuries that have left one woman quadriplegic, according to Annunciation House’s director, Ruben Garcia.
“We have such little appreciation for what they’re risking to be safe, to put food on the table,” Garcia said. “These people aren’t coming here because they want to put jacuzzis in their houses.”
While various administration officials have made multiple visits to the border, the absence of Biden and Harris has left some Democrats worried that damage has already been done.
“The administration is making Democrats look weak,” the Texas Democratic representative Henry Cuellar said. “I’ve heard, from Democrats and Republicans in my area, what the heck is going on with this administration?”
Biden’s first few months in office have seen record numbers of migrants attempting to cross the border.
CBP recorded more than 180,000 encounters on the Mexican border in May, the most since March 2000.
Those numbers were boosted by a coronavirus pandemic-related ban on the legal facility for seeking asylum from persecution, a rule called Title 42 begun by Trump and continued by Biden that allows most people unlawfully crossing the border to be summarily expelled into Mexico, at their peril.
The New York progressive congressswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez called the Biden administration’s approach and Harris’s harsh message “disappointing”.
Harris was tasked by Biden to handle the intractable problem of balancing human rights and economic benefits to the US with border security and entrenched – and worsening – problems affecting many people in Central American countries, particularly in low-income and rural communities affected by gang violence and climate change.
“What happens at the border matters, and is directly connected to what is happening in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras,” said Harris’s spokeswoman, Symone Sanders. “It is directly connected to the work of addressing the root causes of migration.”
Harris was being joined on the trip by the homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, the Illinois Democratic senator Dick Durbin and Escobar, who represents the district there.
Harris had no plans to visit the migrant detention facility at the Fort Bliss military post, which has drawn criticism from advocates who have described unsafe conditions and allegations of abuse toward some of the thousands of children housed there.
Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino civil rights organization, expressed concerns that Harris’s visit was “a day late and a dollar short”.
“It almost feels like they’re being kind of forced into it by the local communities, as well as the Republicans’ political attacks from the right,” Garcia said.
But, still, Garcia said he was glad she was going, and expressed optimism that her visit could help the Biden administration correct its course on the immigration issue and show a contrast to the Trump administration’s hardline stance on border security.
“They should own this, and they should solve it, because it does need a bipartisan solution,” he said.