WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden has tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the White House effort to tackle the migration challenge at the U.S. southern border and work with Central American nations to address root causes of the problem.
Biden made the announcement as he and Harris met at the White House on Wednesday with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandra Mayorkas and other immigration advisers to discuss the increase in migrants, including many unaccompanied minors, arriving at the border in recent weeks.
In delegating the matter to Harris, Biden is seeking to replicate a dynamic that played out when he served as President Barack Obama's vice president. Obama turned to Biden in his first term to lead the White House effort to draw down U.S. troops in the intractable war in Iraq and oversee implementation of the American Recovery Act in response to the Great Recession.
"When she speaks, she speaks for me," Biden said, noting her past work as California's attorney general makes her specially equipped to lead the administration's response.
Biden, who has faced stiff criticism from Republicans over the increased flow of migrants since he took office in January, is hoping to show Americans he's taking the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border seriously. He also wants to prevent the growing humanitarian and political challenge from overshadowing his administration's ambitious legislative agenda.
But the high-profile assignment for Harris, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and is expected to run for the White House again in the future, could be politically fraught.
To that end, Biden teased in his comments that he was saddling her with a "tough job."
"Needless to say, the work will not be easy," Harris said about her new assignment. "But it is important work."
Harris is tasked with overseeing diplomatic efforts to deal with issues spurring migration in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as well as pressing them to strengthen enforcement on their own borders, administration officials said. More broadly, though, she's tasked with implementing a long-term strategy that gets at the root causes of migration from those countries.
Biden suggested former President Donald Trump's decision to cut funding in 2019 to the region was partly to blame for the situation. Trump announced in April 2019 he was cutting $450 million in aid to the three countries because they weren't doing enough to stem the flow of migrants.
Among the other reasons for the current increase: the thousands of Central American migrants already stuck at the border for months and the persistent scourge of gang violence afflicting the Northern Triangle countries.
Still, the numbers of both unaccompanied minors and families encountered at the border are lower than they were at various points during the Trump administration, including in spring 2019.
For Harris, the assignment gives her the first big opportunity to step to the front of the stage on a matter of enormous consequence for the administration. As the first Black woman elected vice president, Harris arrived on the job as a trailblazer. It has remained opaque how Biden would utilize her.
The move echoes not only Obama's decision to deputize Biden but also Trump naming Vice President Mike Pence to lead his coronavirus task force and President Bill Clinton handing Vice President Al Gore environmental and technology portfolios early in his presidency.
It's been a mixed bag for vice presidents in recent history who have been made the point person on delicate matters, said Joel Goldstein, the author of "The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden."
Pence's efforts on the coronavirus were stymied by Trump's hijacking of the task force's daily briefings early in the pandemic. Dick Cheney, who had been charged with leading George W. Bush's search for a vice president only to take the spot himself, carved out what was seen by many critics as a shadow presidency in which he had an outsized influence on shaping Bush's national security policies.
And Gore faced headwinds from Republicans in Congress who were reluctant to give him a win ahead of his unsuccessful 2000 run for the White House.
"Some of the risk versus reward depends to some extent on the vice president's relationship with the president," Goldstein said. "Whether or not the president had their back. Whether the president's going to allow you to be in a position to accomplish things and be perceived to accomplish things."
Biden made the announcement as a delegation of White House officials and members of Congress was traveling to the southern border on Wednesday to tour a facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, where more than 750 migrant teenagers are being held.
The Biden administration has in recent weeks moved to open more than 10,000 new beds across the Southwest in convention centers and former oilfield camps. It notified Congress on Wednesday that it will open a new 3,000-person facility in San Antonio and a 1,400-person site at the San Diego convention center. HHS is also opening a second site in Carrizo Springs and exploring housing teenagers at military bases in San Antonio and El Paso, Texas.
But the U.S. is exhausting capacity almost as quickly as it can add it. A week after opening, the convention center in downtown Dallas is at nearly 2,000 teenagers, just shy of its 2,300-bed capacity. Experts on child welfare say HHS must release children more quickly, particularly the estimated 40% of children in custody who have a parent in the U.S. ready to take them.
The White House was limiting media access on Wednesday's tour, keeping it to just one TV crew.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is leading a separate delegation of GOP senators to the border later this week, decried what he said was a "crisis" at the border and the lack of press access as a "muzzling" of the media by the Democratic administration.
"Joe Biden doesn't want you to see," Cruz told reporters at the Capitol.
Merchant reported from Houston. Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed reporting.