At border, U.S. vice president Harris shakes off Republican critics

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris greets Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) as she boards Air Force Two to travel to El Paso, Texas from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., June 25, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

By Nandita Bose

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) -Vice President Kamala Harris visited a border patrol facility near the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday, aiming to counter claims from Republicans she has been slow to visit the region as part of her role addressing the root causes of immigration.

The trip, her first to the border since becoming vice president five months ago, was announced on Wednesday and appeared to have been hastily put together days before a border visit by former President Donald Trump.

A White House official said Harris’s schedule was not dictated by what the Republican Trump does. “I can assure you we don’t take our cues from the former president,” the official said.

“I said back in March I was going to come to the border, so this is not a new plan,” Harris told reporters after landing in Texas. “Coming to the border … is about looking at the effects of what we have seen happening in Central America.”

Republicans have criticized President Joe Biden, her fellow Democrat, for rolling back restrictive Trump-era immigration policies even as migrant detentions at the U.S.-Mexico border have reached 20-year highs in recent months.

Immigration remains a hot-button issue for both parties. Democrats and pro-immigrant activists have pressed Biden to further scale back enforcement and ensure humane treatment of migrant children and families arriving at the border.

White House officials have for months said Harris’s efforts to stem immigration from Central America are focused on diplomacy and are distinct from the security issues at the border.

“The vice president’s trip to Guatemala and Mexico earlier this year was about the root causes, and this border visit is about the effects,” her spokesperson Symone Sanders, told reporters on Thursday. “Both trips will inform the administration’s root causes strategy.”

Harris, who visited the border as a senator and attorney general from California, was assailed by Republicans when she visited Mexico and Guatemala this month as part of her efforts to lower migration from the region into the United States.

During that trip, Harris said she would visit the border in the near future but was focused on “tangible results” and “opposed to grand gestures.”

Nonetheless, Republicans criticized Harris for choosing El Paso rather than the area they point to as a hot spot for increased border crossings.

“While it’s certainly positive that she is taking this step, I am disappointed that she is not going to the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) – the very epicenter of this crisis,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf under Trump said in a statement.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, said many Republicans have embraced Trump’s hardline immigration policies as they gear up for U.S. congressional elections in 2022.

As such, they are unlikely to stop their criticism of Biden’s policies, even if Harris visits the border.

“They believe that is something that can win them seats in 2022, so of course they’re going to play it up,” she said. “They’re going to try to make it an issue.”

Harris was accompanied in El Paso by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Dick Durbin and Democratic Representative from Texas Veronica Escobar, who called the El Paso area the new “Ellis Island,” a reference to the famed area in New York Harbor that processed millions of immigrants as they entered the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Ted Hesson, additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Kieran Murray and Alistair Bell)

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