Biden Taps Harris for Response to Immigrant Rush at Southern Border

With a large number of unaccompanied minors among the wave of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, the vice president will tackle the challenges they bring and represent.

A child rests their head on a table in Roma, Texas, as a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer process migrants after they crossed into the U.S. early Wednesday. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead his administration’s response to dealing with the flood of young, unaccompanied migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks.

Biden made the announcement at the White House Wednesday alongside Harris, as well as Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandra Mayorkas.

“She is the most qualified person to do it,” Biden said of Harris Wednesday, highlighting Harris’ experience running the California Attorney General’s Office, fighting organized crime as well as working on human rights issues as an asset on these issues.

In this role, he continued, his second in command will work with Mexico and the countries that make up what is known as Latin America’s Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — to quell migration at the southern border. 

While Harris called the situation challenging Wednesday, she expressed gratitude to Biden for trusting her to oversee it.

“Needless to say, the work will not be easy but it is important work. It is work that we demand and the people of our countries I believe need to help stem the tide that we have seen,” Harris said.

The U.S. has seen a dramatic spike in the number of undocumented migrants encountered by border officials since Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, although the numbers are still lower than they were at various points during the Trump administration. According to the Pew Research Center, the nation saw a 168% increase in the number of family members encountered and a 63% increase in the number of children encountered in February 2021 when compared to the month before. The number of family members and unaccompanied children sit at 18,945 and 9,297, respectively. During this time, the country processed another 68,732 single adults.

“This new surge that we are seeing now started with the last administration but it is our responsibility to deal with it humanely and to stop what is happening,” Biden said Wednesday. 

The Trump administration had caused a buildup of migrants by stalling thousands of Central Americans at the border in the months before Biden took office. Persistent gang violence in the Northern Triangle has also ensured that the stream has continued to flow steadily. 

Large numbers of children passing through has posed a particular challenge for the administration as caring for them in migrant facilities requires more coordination across agencies. The Biden administration has received criticism in recent months for holding children apprehended at the border in Border Patrol custody past the legal three-day detention limit after which they are sent to longer-term migrant facilities.

Biden and Harris have committed to seeking $4 billion from Congress over the next four years to address the root causes of migration at the southern border — corruption, poverty and transnational criminal organizations — while spurring economic development through private sector investment and community-driven outreach. He announced Wednesday that his administration would be restoring a federal program that provides $700 million in aide, previously ended under the Trump administration, to the Northern Triangle.

President Joe Biden speaks with Vice President Kamala Harris about the southern border during a Wednesday meeting in the State Dining Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“The best way to keep people from coming is to keep them from wanting to leave,” the president said Wednesday, condemning the last administration for turning its back on Latin America and instituting “somewhat draconian policies of separating children at the border from their parents.”

“If you deal with the problem in the country, it benefits everyone. It benefits us, it benefits the people, it grows the economies there,” he continued.

Roberta Jacobson, who is National Security Council coordinator for the southern border, also faulted the former administration for the state of the immigration system at a press conference this month, saying Trump not only neglected the immigration system, the former ambassador remarked, he “intentionally made it worse.”

Harris noted Wednesday that she was looking forward to working with members of Congress who also see “the need to address root causes for the migration.” 

“I look forward to engaging in diplomacy with government, with the private sector, with the civil society and the leaders in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to strengthen democracy and the rule of law and ensure shared prosperity in the region,” Harris said.

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