Biden taps VP Harris to lead response to border challenges

Published 11:24 pm Wednesday, March 24, 2021

By Jonathan Lemire, Nomaan Merchant, Lisa Mascaro and Aamer Madhani

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the White House effort to tackle the migration challenge at the U.S. southern border and work with Central American nations to address root causes of the problem.

Biden made the announcement as he and Harris met at the White House on Wednesday with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandra Mayorkas and other immigration advisers to discuss the increase in migrants, including many unaccompanied minors, arriving at the border in recent weeks.

In delegating the matter to Harris, Biden is seeking to replicate a dynamic that played out when he served as President Barack Obama’s vice president. Obama turned to Biden in his first term to lead the White House effort to draw down U.S. troops in Iraq and oversee implementation of stimulus in response to the Great Recession.

“When she speaks, she speaks for me,” Biden said, noting her past work as California’s attorney general makes her specially equipped to lead the administration’s response.

Biden, who has faced stiff criticism from Republicans over the increased flow of migrants, is hoping to show Americans he’s taking the situation at the border seriously. He also wants to prevent the growing humanitarian and political challenge from overshadowing his administration’s ambitious legislative agenda.

But the high-profile assignment for Harris, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and is expected to run for the White House again in the future, could be politically fraught.

“Needless to say, the work will not be easy,” Harris said. “But it is important work.”

Harris is tasked with overseeing diplomatic efforts to deal with issues spurring migration in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as well as pressing them to strengthen enforcement on their own borders, administration officials said. She’s also tasked with developing and implementing a long-term strategy that gets at the root causes of migration from those countries.

Biden suggested President Donald Trump’s decision to cut $450 million funding in 2019 to the region was partly to blame for the situation.

Among the other reasons for the current increase: the thousands of Central American migrants already stuck at the border for months and the persistent scourge of gang violence afflicting the Northern Triangle countries.

Still, the numbers of both unaccompanied minors and families encountered at the border are lower than they were at various points during the Trump administration, including in spring 2019.

For Harris, the assignment gives her the first big opportunity to step to the front of the stage on a matter of enormous consequence for the administration. As the first Black woman elected vice president, Harris arrived on the job as a trailblazer. It has remained opaque how Biden would utilize her.

The move echoes not only Obama’s decision to deputize Biden but also Trump naming Vice President Mike Pence to lead his coronavirus task force and President Bill Clinton handing Vice President Al Gore environmental and technology portfolios early in his presidency.

It’s been a mixed bag for vice presidents in recent history who have been made the point person on delicate matters, said Joel Goldstein, the author of “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.”

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