(Headline USA) Kamala Harris is facing perhaps the most politically challenging moment of her vice presidency during a visit Friday to the U.S.-Mexico border as the thus-far absent leader of the Biden administration’s response to a migration spike that’s drawn fire from Republicans and made fellow Democrats uncomfortable.
“I’m glad to be here,” Harris said after arriving into El Paso. “It was always the plan to come here, and I think we’re gonna have a good productive day.”
But she immediately faced criticism from political opponents because she avoided parts of the border where the crisis is most acute.
According to a report from the Washington Examiner, Harris’s visit is “800 miles away from the region that is seeing more than double the normal amount of illegal immigration.”
Even allies viewed her choice of location skeptically. Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas called the visit a “politically safe trip.”
“The epicenter is down there in the Lower Rio Grande, the lower part of my district down there,” he told Fox News on Thursday. “If you look at the numbers that are down there compared to El Paso, you’re not going to get a true picture of what’s happening.”
At a Customs and Border Protection processing center, Harris met with five young girls, ages 9-16, who had been detained after crossing the border, according to a White House press brief. 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.
Her schedule, according to the White House, includes talks with advocates from faith-based organizations, as well as shelter and legal service providers, after a drop-by at the Paso del Norte Port of Entry.
The absence of Biden and Harris has left some Democrats worried that political damage already has been done. There’s concern that the Biden administration has ceded the border security debate to Republicans.
“The administration is making Democrats look weak,” said Cuellar in an interview with the Associated Press. “I’ve heard, from Democrats and Republicans in my area, what the heck is going on with this administration?”
Cuellar’s district spans from south of San Antonio to the U.S.-Mexico border, and last year he won reelection by the slimmest margin of his nearly two-decade-long career. While he says he’s not worried about his own reelection, he adds, “I worry about my colleagues.”
Biden’s first few months in office have seen record numbers of migrants attempting to cross the border. 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 coronavirus pandemic-related ban on seeking asylum, which encouraged repeated attempts to cross because getting caught carried no legal consequences.
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 said, without evidence, that “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.
Trump said on Friday in an interview with the conservative outlet Newsmax that “I think she should go to the real part of the border, not a part of the border that’s seldom violated.”
The head of a major Latino civil rights group expressed concerns that Harris’s visit was “a day late and a dollar short.”
“It almost feels like they’re being kind of forced into it by the local communities, as well as the Republicans’ political attacks from the right,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.