WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the administration’s response to the growing number of migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border.
Harris will focus on two key areas — stemming the flow of migrants attempting to cross into the United States via Mexico, including an uptick in unaccompanied minors, and developing long-term partnerships with leaders in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico to address the underlying issues such as gang violence and poverty that drive mass migration from those countries.
Biden announced Harris’ latest assignment at the White House, telling reporters just before a meeting with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Harris that he wanted a point person that could speak decisively for the administration.
"It’s not her full responsibility job, but she is leading the effort because I think the best thing to do is to put someone who when he or she speaks, they don’t have to wonder about, ‘is that where the president is?’ When she speaks, she speaks for me, doesn’t have to check with me, she knows what she’s doing, and I hope we can move this along," Biden said.
Harris told reporters "there is no question that this is a challenging situation" at the border, but she was prepared to engage "in diplomacy with government, with private sector, with civil society and the leaders of each in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to strengthen democracy and the rule of law and ensure shared prosperity in the region."
"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," Harris said.
The United States has seen an uptick in border apprehensions over the past 10 months, according to a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. More than 100,000 migrants were apprehended by U.S. border agents last month, a 28% increase from January, according to Customs and Border Patrol Data. Last month agents processed 9,500 unaccompanied minors, a 61% increase from January.
Harris will primarily focus on the southern border issues and not the broader issue of immigration reform, said a senior administration official in a phone briefing with reporters.
Biden, as a presidential candidate, proposed spending $4 billion over the next four years to tackle some of the underlying issues of gang violence, poverty and corruption in the so-called "Northern Triangle" countries of Central America.
"We can talk all day about the symptoms of the situation, but you really have to get at what is causing this phenomenon, and that will be her focus," the official said. "We are proceeding both with a sense of decency about treating migrants like human beings and doing the very best we can to care for people and treating our neighbors with respect and dignity."