Vice President Kamala Harris will be far south of the United States border this week when she travels to Guatemala and Mexico to discuss efforts to address the root causes of Central American migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. But for months, Harris’ presence has been requested someplace else: […]
Vice President Kamala Harris will be far south of the United States border this week when she travels to Guatemala and Mexico to discuss efforts to address the root causes of Central American migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border.
But for months, Harris' presence has been requested someplace else: The U.S. southern border. Mostly Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have called on Harris and President Joe Biden to visit areas along the U.S.-Mexico border, where they say a dramatic increase of migrants has developed into a crisis. Members of the House and Senate have flown into border towns, toured intake facilities and taken boat rides on the Rio Grande River. And their message to Harris and Biden has been: Come see it for yourself.
But in the Rio Grande Valley, the southern tip of Texas where many migrants come, it’s a mixed bag as to whether a visit from Harris or Biden is necessary. Instead, local officials said they want to see the Biden administration make border cities and local officials a larger part in conversations about finding solutions at the border, and are calling for Congress to pass immigration legislation.
“I don't know if that makes a difference,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, told USA TODAY when asked about the president or vice president visiting the area. “I certainly think they need to be having a larger circle at the table of the conversation of what's happening.”
The Rio Grande Valley, which includes a number of busy border crossings, for decades has been the backdrop of the immigration debate in Washington. Lawmakers, and even some media, have parachuted in during spikes in immigration at the southern border. Some presidents have visited the area, while others skipped stopping in Texas’ southernmost tip.
Amid a large increase of migrants, mostly from Central America, former President Barack Obama went to Texas in 2014 to address the situation at the border. However, he gave a speech on the topic up north in Dallas.
Former President Donald Trump made immigration and building a border wall a key initiative during his administration. He visited the Rio Grande Valley twice, once in 2019 and another time in January 2021, days before the end of his administration.
Former President George W. Bush went to Mission, Texas, in August 2006 to speak with Army National Guard members who were assisting border patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Biden initially said in March he would go to the border "at some point," but has since said he has not visited the border because he doesn’t “want to become the issue.”
“I don’t want to become the issue,” he said during his first press conference in March. “I don’t want to be, you know, bringing all of the Secret Service and everybody with me to get in the way.”
As for Harris, she has noted that she is focusing on the root causes of migration by focusing on issues facing the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, plus Mexico.
“The President has asked Secretary Mayorkas to address what is going on at the border,” Harris told reporters in April. “And he has been working very hard at that, and it’s showing some progress because of his hard work. I have been asked to lead the issue of dealing with root causes in the Northern Triangle, similar to what then-Vice President Biden did many years ago.”
Harris is meeting Guatemalan officials and non-profit leaders on Monday. On Tuesday, she is heading to Mexico City to meet with Mexican officials.
William Antholis, director and CEO of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, said heading to emergency areas, such as areas affected by shootings or hurricanes, is “part of the job and it's a way of showing that you care.”
But when it comes to situations dealing with migration, Antholis said it is more complicated because officials aren’t just dealing with what’s happening on the ground at the U.S.-Mexico border but also the point of departure.
Sending Harris to Guatemala and Mexico, the Biden administration is “choosing to emphasize the political root causes of this migration," he said.
”If you're going to focus on the crisis at the border, you then need to address the crisis. Now they're now choosing to address the causes of the crisis,” Antholis said.
Despite Harris' role in focusing on root causes in Central America, many Republican lawmakers have criticized the vice president for not visiting the border amid the increase number of migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border.
House Republican lawmakers in April put Harris' photo on a milk carton, which said “Missing at the border: Vice President Kamala Harris.”
“If she’s the vice president of the United States and the president put her in charge of this, Vice President Harris needs to go down to the border and see this for herself," Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said during a news conference in April.
Increases of migrant children, families and adults coming to the U.S. border have occurred under multiple administrations, Democrat and Republican. In 2014, under the Obama administration, there were 570,698 migrants encountered by border patrol officials. Similar trends continued in 2016. Under Trump in 2019, there were also increases. Nearly 1 million individuals were apprehended by border patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border that year.
Record numbers of migrants have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border this year, again drawing attention to the flow of migrants and border communities. In April alone, 178,622 people were apprehended at the southern border.
Despite the calls from some lawmakers, local lawmakers and officials have said they want to expand communication with the Biden administration, but that does not necessarily mean the president and the vice president needs to visit the area.
Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents portions of the Rio Grande Valley, praised Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ recent trips to the area. Mayorkas made a trip earlier this month to tour a border patrol facility in Donna, Texas, where reporters were allowed access to the facility with the secretary and several lawmakers.
“I think he’s done a pretty good job of seeing what's on the ground and reporting back, and implementing their plans of how to manage the situation,” Gonzalez said.
Outgoing McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, whose term ends in June, said he would like to see either Biden or Harris visit the area to make border communities a larger part of the discussion about addressing the migration situation at the border. Darling briefly met with Trump during one of his visits to the Rio Grande Valley.
“Talk to local people,” he said.
Brownsville Mayor Troy Mendez doesn't view a potentialBiden or Harris visit negatively.
“I don't see it as a bad thing for Vice President Harris or President Biden wanting to come down,” Mendez said. “We'd certainly be happy to show them around and show them what's happening here on the border and tell them our story. I think it's always good for somebody to see it for themselves.”
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_