Vice President Kamala Harris and her team are staring down attempts to make her the face of the Biden administration’s response to the crisis at the border, a little more than a week after being assigned a role that positions her in the center of one of the administration’s most divisive issues.
Aides define her official task as leading the diplomatic outreach to Central American countries to address the root causes of migration. But Harris has already been tied to the border situation at large, as Republicans seek to conflate her more narrowly defined role with the entire border crisis. While Biden has blamed the situation on former President Donald Trump and pent-up demand, the administration has not been clear publicly on who is in charge of the complete response.
A source familiar with White House thinking said President Joe Biden had always been leaning toward Harris handling diplomacy around migration since he held a similar job himself in 2014 and 2015, when he was asked by then-President Barack Obama to lead diplomatic efforts in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Biden told reporters he asked Harris to take on the task “because she’s the most qualified person to do it.”
Harris’ newest role came into focus in the last two weeks, the source added, before it was confirmed last week. And more portfolio items could be announced soon, officials noted, as Biden said he’s asked her to tackle multiple other issues.
While aides work in the background, Harris has been busy getting up to speed on the region’s specifics. An administration official says she had an extensive briefing led by Senior Coordinator for the Southern Border Roberta Jacobson, National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez and Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zuniga.
And, on Tuesday, Harris spoke with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, her first call to a Northern Triangle leader since she was assigned to her role.
Harris tweeted Monday night a photo of her with Zuniga and her national security adviser Nancy McEldowney and said they “are implementing our plan to engage the governments and people of the region, and address the root causes of migration from Central America. This will take time, but it’s important and necessary work.” She also posted a tweet on Wednesday detailing her conversation with Giammattei and told faith leaders at a roundtable discussion that she had met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss issues facing the Northern Triangle countries.
One official noted the narrative around immigration will take time to recalibrate after four years of the prior administration using broad strokes to demonize any part of immigration instead of talking credibly about the root causes of migration.
But Harris’ first days in the new role have been marred by the first blush of a GOP messaging campaign ready to blame her for any perceived failure.
“If it doesn’t go well, you can be sure that Republicans are going to make her the face of Biden’s border policy,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.
A messaging battle with Republicans
In one example, the Republican National Committee now regularly refers to her as the “crisis manager” at the border.
“Kamala Harris is a so-called crisis manager who refuses to actually visit the scene of the crisis,” RNC rapid response director Tommy Pigott wrote in a news release Tuesday.
Both Biden’s and Harris’ staff have issued multiple clarifications of the vice president’s role, making sure to distinguish it as specific to diplomatic efforts on stemming the current flow of migrants and on developing a larger strategic partnership with Central American countries, rather than Harris being responsible for the entire security of the border.
“I will just reiterate that the vice president is not doing the border,” Symone Sanders, Harris’ spokeswoman and a senior adviser, told reporters while on Air Force 2 on Friday.
But any clarifications — though delivered directly to reporters — have yet to lessen the barrage of criticism from Republicans, eager to assign her responsibility for a border problem that the current administration has blamed on former President Donald Trump and pent-up demand, as migrants are attempting to cross the border at heightened levels.
“She’s about the worst possible choice one could make,” Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona, told reporters after the announcement.
“Get down here. Get informed and recognize you’ve got a crisis and it’s on you to fix it,” said Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, after touring the Rio Grande River on Friday with more than a dozen of his Republican colleagues.
And Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, another Republican, referred to her as the administration’s “border czar” in a letter sent Tuesday.
“Now that President Biden has named you Border Czar in charge of the administration’s response, I want to express to you the threats and challenges caused by this administration’s open border policies,” Abbott wrote.
It’s caused the White House to act quickly to control the narrative, which has also been promoted by conservative media outlets like Fox News, attempting to stave off what could become political problem for Harris, both now and further down the line should she decide to seek the Oval Office.
Asked Tuesday why the White House felt the need to offer multiple clarifications of Harris’ assignment — and if the request came from Harris’ herself — press secretary Jen Psaki said members of the media “deserve to have an understanding of what her exact role was.”
Psaki said the plan was always for Harris’ to not focus on the border, and that the President wants the vice president to play a similar role as he did.
“Engaging with these countries; engaging with their leaders; figuring out how to invest best, how to work in partnership, how to prevent corruption from taking over; to put in place steps that will make the journey less desirable,” Psaki said. “That is certainly a big assignment and one the President is confident the vice president will take on and do well.”
Experience as California’s AG comes into play
Those who have worked with the vice president point to Harris’ experience as California’s attorney general, expending significant effort to take on transnational crime.
“I can think of no one who’s better qualified to do this than the former, this is a woman who ran the second largest attorney general’s office in America, after the United States attorney general, in the state of California,” Biden said Wednesday in the State Dining Room.
In that role, Harris and her Mexican counterpart worked together to expand prosecutions on human traffickers, increase coordination of resources to target transnational gangs, according to a release from her office at the time.
She led a delegation of bipartisan US attorneys general in 2014 to Mexico City where they signed a memorandum of understanding to help improve the training level of the country’s attorney generals as the country shifted to an advocacy based judicial system.
Former New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, a Democrat who was a part of the delegation, admitted his surprise in seeing Harris so deeply engaged with smaller state attorneys general because of the large justice system she ran.
“She can be very influential. And she doesn’t come across as a bully while she’s doing it,” King said, a nod to Trump’s frequent clashes with foreign leaders.
Sergio Gonzales, the executive director of the Immigration Hub and former senior policy adviser to then-Sen. Harris, said her previous work in the Senate and as California’s attorney general provides her with a “keen sense” of the conditions in which people flee from.
“We know that that is a huge issue in the Northern Triangle,” Gonzales said, referring to smuggling and transnational crime organizations. “A lot of this violence and gang violence is what is causing people to leave and really destabilizing to the region. So I think her prior work on that is also going to be really important for her going forward.”
Those who have worked with Harris on bills in the Senate and during her primary campaign preach about her eagerness to learn about the intricacies of an issue and have it reflected in her policies.
David Leopold, a longtime immigration lawyer and the chair of Immigration Law Group at Ulmer & Berne LLP, consulted with Harris’ primary campaign about her proposal that would have expanded the use of deferred action immigration programs as president, said in the process — he saw Harris show a “real commitment to making the system work.”
“She really spent a lot of time understanding the immigration statute. What worked, what didn’t work and what could be made better. And it was kind of a very lawyerly approach, but I mean that in the best of ways,” he told CNN in an interview.
Experts say one of Harris’ most important roles will likely be to lead the coordination across US government agencies.
“Where the vice president comes in is as [Biden’s] direct representative to make sure that everyone plays well together in the administration,” Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute said. “And there is someone who can make a call and it will be answered, without Biden having to pick up the phone every time.”
Selee said that Harris will be well served by her early entry into the role, which allows her to have four years to show progress.
“If she is seen as hitting the right notes, and eventually getting things sorted out — and she’s got time to do that — it’s a huge win for her politically. But if this continues to be a simmering issue over the next three years, then it will be attached to her as a politician,” he said.
For her part, Harris is publicly downplaying any risks associated with her assignment, giving reporters a swift answer last week when asked if she was concerned about any political risks: “No.”