WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) —Vice President Kamala Harris asserted Friday that the Biden administration had made progress tackling a migration spike that’s drawn fire from Republicans and made fellow Democrats uncomfortable. Her first trip to the U.S.-Mexico border as head of the Biden administration’s response is being closely watched on all sides.
Visiting El Paso, Harris called the situation at the border “tough” and said more work is needed, anchored in a thorough understanding of why migrants leave their homes.
She met with five young girls, ages 9-16, who had been held at a Customs and Border Protection processing center after crossing the border, the White House said, before visiting the border itself at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry. She also spoke with agents about how they were using technology to streamline intake for migrants.
“You guys have made incredible advances in the last several months,” she told the agents.
This is the first time Harris has visited the border since becoming the vice president and taking a lead role in immigration issues.
“I’m glad to be here,” Harris said after arriving into El Paso and plunging into her schedule. “It was always the plan to come here, and I think we’re gonna have a good productive day.”
During a meeting with faith-based organizations, as well as shelter and legal service providers, Harris said she and Biden “inherited a tough situation.’”
She added: “In five months we’ve made progress, but there’s still more work to be done, but we’ve made progress.”
But critics of her visit say El Paso is not he epicenter of the border crisis. McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos says his community in Texas’ Rio Grand Valley is seeing a flood of migrants.
“We need Congress, we need the president or vice president to act,” he told NewsNationNow.com. “And yes, I would love to have our vice president visit us.”
Villalobos said only the federal government could send the message necessary to dissuade migrants from trying to cross the border.
“Until Washington acts and so that people in Central America and other areas know that we’re serious about our borders, we’re going to continue this this problem,” he said.
Thus far, much of Harris’ attention has been devoted to what she calls the “root causes” of migration, namely poverty, crime and corruption in Central America.
“The stories that I heard today reinforce the nature of those root causes,” she said, adding, “It is going to require, as we have been doing, a comprehensive approach that acknowledges each piece of this.”
Harris faced months of criticism from Republicans, and even some frustration from those in her own party, for not visiting the area.
The administration inherited “a broken and inhumane immigration system,” Sanders said during a call with reporters on Thursday. “The previous administration’s policies led to chaos at the border, family separation, inhumane conditions, dismal diplomacy towards and with Central America.”
Sanders said the vice president’s trip to Guatemala and Mexico earlier this year was about addressing the root causes, and this border visit “is about the effects.”
Harris, who visited the U.S.-Mexico border many times as a senator and attorney general from California, was assailed by Republicans when she visited Mexico and Guatemala this month.
She was tasked earlier this year by President Joe Biden with taking on the root causes of migration from Central America to the United States, and so far she’s focused largely on outreach to local leaders and advocacy groups with the goal of improving economic and living conditions in the region. Harris has said her goal is to offer residents of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico hope for their future, so they no longer feel compelled to leave home for better opportunities.
Aides say she is not overseeing the security response to the uptick in border crossings, but that has not stopped critics from blasting the Biden administration for not visiting the border until this month.
Harris was being joined on the trip by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents the district there.
Mayorkas said the U.S. faced “significant challenges” back in March in securing the border but “we’ve made extraordinary progress” that he was hoping to share with Harris Friday.
Harris had no plans to visit the migrant detention facility at the Fort Bliss military post, which has drawn criticism from advocates who have described unsafe conditions and allegations of abuse toward some of the thousands of children housed there. Instead, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra was set to travel there on Monday.
Democratic Rep. Cuellar called the decision by Harris to visit El Paso “politically safe,” because, he said, most of the activity at the border happens farther south.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is kickstarting a crowdfunding campaign to finish the border wall former President Donald Trump started. He will host Trump at the border on June 30.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded more than 180,000 encounters on the Mexican border in May, the most since March 2000. Those numbers were boosted by a pandemic-related ban on seeking asylum, which encouraged repeated attempts to cross the border because getting caught carried no legal consequences.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.