Biden taps Kamala Harris to lead White House immigration and border efforts

VP to work on ‘stemming’ the flow of unaccompanied children to the US border and addressing poverty, corruption, and gang violence in Central America

Griffin Connolly
Wednesday 24 March 2021 21:23 GMT
Children in custody inside Texas migrant centre
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Vice President Kamala Harris has been tapped by Joe Biden to lead the administration’s response to the situation at the southern border, where the US government has taken in a surge of unaccompanied migrant children but struggled to comply with laws governing temporary housing for them.

The immigration portfolio is the first specific assignment Mr Biden has delegated to Ms Harris. The president’s decision signals the administration is redoubling its efforts to address concerns about the thousands of migrant children in US government care, as the overwhelmed Homeland Security and Health and Human Services Departments manage the rapid increase in children under their care.

Ms Harris’ task will be to carry a diplomatic message to Mexico and the poor, Spanish-speaking Central American countries of the so-called Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — that they must work to “stem” the flow of child migrants to the US.

“I asked her, the VP, today, because she’s the most qualified person to do it, to lead our efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle, and the countries that can help, need help in stemming the movement of so many folks, stemming the migration to our southern border,” Mr Biden told reporters on Wednesday.

A White House official told reporters earlier on Wednesday that Ms Harris’ assignment would be twofold: to limit the number of “irregular migrants” crossing their borders headed for the US, and to work with those migrants’ origin countries help confront the “root causes” for why they are so desperate to leave.

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“Thank you, Mr. President, for having the confidence in me. There is no question that this is a challenging situation,” Ms Harris said. “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, as the president has described, to come here.”

Mr Biden’s DHS has blasted out multiple press releases in recent weeks highlighting the abject poverty, corruption, and gang violence in parts of Central America that have contributed to the steady flow of migrants to the US.

Democrats have blamed the Biden administration’s early struggles to take in the surge of children coming into the US on Donald Trump’s policies and lack of border infrastructure and processes.

“Let me be clear, the Trump administration’s cruel, shortsighted policies directly contributed to the situation at the border now,” House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson said at a hearing last week, citing the lack of testing capacity at CBP facilities and a general scarcity of resources for people seeking asylum from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries in Central America.

In a switch from the previous administration, Mr Biden has adopted a policy of taking in those unaccompanied minors seeking asylum, saying it is the only “humane” response to the situation.

By law, unaccompanied children who make it to the border are supposed to spend no more than 72 hours with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) before being transferred into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which runs a housing network for such minors. The goal is for the children to have safe places to stay as authorities track down legal sponsors and relatives in the US who can take them in.

But by last week, more than 300 unaccompanied children had been in CBP custody for more than 10 days. Thousands of others are in CBP custody right now. Most have been there far longer than the 72-hour legal window as HHS struggles to find shelter for the thousands of children already under its jurisdiction.

The Biden administration has expelled or turned away from the US an “overwhelming majority” of the thousands of families and adult individuals seeking to enter the US, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told earlier this week.

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