Terry H. Schwadron
April 17, 2021
Vice President Kamala Harris finally made her first public move on immigration this week, announcing a visit to Mexico and Guatemala “soon” for talks towards addressing the root causes of swelling and continuing migration to the United States despite dangers and legalities.
Three weeks ago, President Joe Biden gave her the responsibility to bring a “whole of government” approach to the building overcrowding of minor migrants crossing the border. But while there are plenty of reports about Harris preparing, we’ve seen little public response, which has left Biden and Harris open to unending political criticism from all sides that they are not addressing the overcrowded and worsening conditions in Border Police and Health and Human Services facilities.
Nevertheless, reports from every view but the White House sees messiness that is getting worse before it will become orderly. The White House has been content to remind that all this started with repressive policies of the last administration and the lack of planning for a seasonal, cyclical migration, and a late start on transition, especially under duress of pandemic. Oh yeah, Team
Biden believes it has been clear in saying we would accept children, but not adults, but that message clearly has not been heard as clearly.
The criticism from progressives is about why we aren’t moving faster to open asylum, while Fox and other right-leaning sites are hammering at a lack of Harris visits to the border. On Thursday, the administration said it would keep the number of allowed asylum cases at the same low level established by Donald Trump — without offering an understandable reason. We were left to assume this was a political decision that too many people are crossing the southern border right now.
Indeed, the border issues underscore the most lasting criticisms of the effectiveness of the administration, since the numbers of undocumented crossings are spiraling. The White House has had trouble defining exactly what Harris’ role includes, since Harris seems to be leaving the unraveling of the current confusion to Homeland Security and HHS agents.
Meanwhile, Guatemala and Mexico this week dispatched more military police to stop migration columns, and our immigration officials have been moving with the Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel to accelerate new bed creation to get young migrants sent to dangerous desert and river crossings alone.
Whatever policy questions exist, whatever the fairness of criticisms, the continuing images of babies dropped over fences and sleeping on overcrowded floors are devastating.
Just why the White House did not do more at the outset to clearly communicate either its polices or the assigned role for Harris is a head-scratcher. In that sense, the criticisms seem reasonable.
What isn’t reasonable is that these problems disappear with a snap of vice-presidential fingers. Biden and Harris seem — we don’t know, which is the point — to accept the notion that we need to take a longer view about immigration that will make sense to migrants and potential migrants as well as to U.S. law enforcement.
They have proposed a comprehensive bill for immigration, granting Dreamers citizenship, establishing a long-term road to U.S. naturalization, and reversing a whole lot of Donald Trump administration limits on legal and illegal immigration. The Biden administration has said it will raise legal immigration caps and restart asylum procedures once its team is in place, but has yet to act. As a result, legal immigration is on track to be slightly more limited than last year under Trump.
Apparently after a time of learning and preparation, the White House has decided that Harris’ job is to coordinate with Mexico and The Northern Triangle countries rather than with addressing those minors already here. In any case, her political opponents note that Harris has had time to attend other unrelated events to promote the coronavirus aid and jobs bill rather than visit the border facilities.
Adding to confusion was a decision by Roberta Jacobson, Biden’s border czar who has played a key role in the Northern Triangle, to resign in the middle of this bloated migration problem. Meanwhile, Harris is deferring on actions affecting the actual overcrowding to the existing agencies.
There is no question that climate disasters, violence, poverty and hunger are driving migration from Central America. The Trump administration canceled most aid to the region but for increased law enforcement and security.
The Insistence on Politics
There have been a lot of reports, including one in Politico.com, that present the issues handed to Harris as akin to a live political grenade. In tapping Harris for this role, Biden “was placing her squarely on the third rail of modern national politics. The question of what to do about the flow of migrants overwhelming border resources have vexed the past two presidents. And some people close to Harris fear it would now do the same for her and, in turn, complicate her political future.”
Guess what? This is not about Harris and politics. It should be about our values and about the literal lives of families so torn that they would have young children risk their lives in search of a better future.
Republicans have been quick to tie Harris directly to the literal events on the border. Republican National Committee spokesperson Keith Schipper has described Harris as the “manager of the Biden border crisis,” while RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel wrote an op-ed titled “Where’s Kamala? Biden’s border point person can’t be bothered to show up.”
Democrats seem worried that bad immigration optics will be a vulnerability for 2022 congressional elections.
It is unfair to place all the complexities of immigration policy on a single person in a single term, regardless of political outlook, to say nothing of three weeks. Still, it would be nice to see what Harris is actually seeking to do in some public fashion. In a phrase, she should know better that transparency helps. And, frankly, why wouldn’t she go to the border, even with senators in tow, to witness the effects personally — to inform herself about the human effects of policy, to bring hope for change from “whole of government” and to stop the irrelevant sideshow of politics.
At the same time, it stretches credulity that Congress, and Republicans in particular, can simply sit and do nothing towards resolution while blaming Harris for not visiting the border to learn what is already known.
Politics are a lousy way to solve even easy questions. Trying to make partisan points over the life and death issues of immigration, to give certainty to business and individual reliance on visas, to straighten the circuitous, almost impenetrable rules of legal immigration is straight frustration for the rest of us.