Biden announced Harris’ new assignment on March 24 ahead of an immigration meeting in the White House State Dining Room, telling reporters that he had asked the vice president “because she’s the most qualified person to do it, to lead our efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle, and the countries that can help, need help in stemming the movement of so many folks, stemming the migration to our southern border.”
After the announcement, Harris’ aides appeared to “panic,” according to one of the officials, out of concern that her assignment was being mischaracterized and could be politically damaging if she were linked to the border, which at the time was facing a growing number of arrivals. But another White House official pushed back on the sentiment, saying the vice president’s team wasn’t panicked.
One of the officials said Harris appears eager for a portfolio that will allow her to achieve political victories, especially in foreign policy, an area where she is far less experienced than Biden. Instead, Republican critics and the media have portrayed her new immigration role as a border assignment, potentially opening her up to criticism for the handling of the seemingly intractable problem.
Harris’ performance is critical to her future political career, which could well include a run for president. It’s also of special concern right now as she prepares to depart for a trip to Guatemala and Mexico next week as part of this project. It will be her first official foray into in-person, in-country talks about the troubles that push Central American migrants toward the US.
Harris and her staff have made it clear that they want to focus narrowly on diplomatic efforts in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where they believe they are more likely to achieve tangible results in addressing the root causes of migration, like economic despair, said the officials.
Former and current officials, along with immigration experts, stress that the causes of migration and the surge on the border are inextricably linked and argue that while addressing the reasons people decide to migrate to the US is critical, it can’t be divorced from what’s happening at the US-Mexico border.
“You can’t divorce the border from Mexico or Central America or the interior of the US,” said John Sandweg, a former senior Homeland Security official who served in the Obama administration. “It is all one system.”
“Everything you’re doing in Central America is always towards an eye on the border and what’s happening in the United States,” said Cris Ramon, an immigration consultant. “With the current dynamics in migration, what’s happening at the US-Mexico border has implications in the Northern Triangle and vice versa.”
A White House official told CNN that administration officials regularly brief Harris on the border.
The pandemic has taken a dramatic toll on Latin America, where Covid-19 cases and deaths soared and economies once projected to grow have been decimated. The region was also hit with two devastating hurricanes last year.
The Biden administration assigned roles early on to tackle migration, including Roberta S. Jacobson, who was appointed as a special assistant to the President and was a key official dealing with migrants at the US-Mexico border until stepping down in April. The administration also assigned a Northern Triangle special envoy, a position held by Ricardo Zúñiga, who frequently travels to the region.
The fraught politics is why, immediately after the President announced Harris’ new role, Harris’ aides seemed dismayed when they saw some Republicans and media outlets try to characterize her as the new border czar, said one of the White House officials familiar with the matter. Another White House official said Harris has been focused on the assignment and rejected the notion that her team was concerned about how her role was being perceived.
But following Biden’s announcement, both the President and vice president’s staff clarified repeatedly that Harris would be focused solely on diplomatic efforts to stem the current flow of migrants and develop a larger strategic partnership with Central America.
Harris’ meetings also indicate where her focus has been. Immigration advocates and regional experts who have participated in roundtables with the vice president describe Harris asking detailed questions on a variety of issues, like agricultural science and water irrigation strategies to tackle food insecurity and infrastructure needs.
Another source familiar with the ongoing discussions on regional strategy said the vice president’s office has been soliciting research on issues, ranging from governance to economic development to climate change, from foundations that study and work in the region.
“She’s asking for a lot of information. … She’s reaching out to a lot of groups to get the best information and to really go in with a sense of who is who and the sense of how can they — the administration — move the agenda,” the source said, adding that prior to a recent meeting with Guatemalan justice sector leaders, the vice president’s team asked for input on what issues to raise with them.
“She’ll have to approve this. We’ll brief it to her, she’ll make changes and then once she’s ready to roll it out, that’s what we’re going to do,” the official said.