EL PASO, Texas - 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 part of her role leading the Biden administration's response to a steep increase in migration.
"I’m glad to be here. It was always the plan to come here, and I think we’re gonna have a good productive day," she said after arriving in El Paso.
Her schedule included a tour of a Customs and Border Protection processing center and talks with advocates from faith-based organizations as well as shelter and legal service providers. She also planned to deliver remarks.
The vice president has faced months of criticism from members of both parties for declining to make the trip thus far and for her muddied explanations as to why.
Republicans have seized on the absence of both Harris and President Joe Biden from the border to paint the administration as weak on border security, seeking to revive a potent political weapon against Democrats in time for the 2022 midterm elections. With former President Donald Trump visiting the area less than a week after Harris, Republicans will be watching the vice president's visit closely for fodder for further attacks.
While various administration officials have made multiple visits to the border, the absence of Biden and Harris has left some Democrats worried that damage already has been done.
"The administration is making Democrats look weak," said Texas Democratic Rep. Henry 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 fight, he adds, "I worry about my colleagues."
Cuellar’s comments reflect a broader concern among some Democrats and immigration activists that the Biden administration has ceded the border security debate to Republicans.
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 the border because getting caught carried no legal consequences.
Republicans have seized on those figures to attack Biden and Harris as weak on border security, a message the GOP used with success during the 2020 campaign.
Administration officials, including Harris, have sought to push back against that perception, with Harris repeatedly sending the message to migrants during her recent visit to Guatemala: "Do not come."
But those comments drew fire from some progressives, most notably New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who called the message "disappointing."
It was an incident that underscored the political no-win situation Harris finds herself in, taking on an intractable problem that’s bedeviled past administrations and been used by both parties to drive wedges and turnout during campaign season. If Biden chooses not to run for a second term, Harris will be seen as the leading contender to replace him, and the immigration issue could become either a chance for her to showcase her accomplishments or an albatross.
Indeed, Republicans preemptively hammered Harris over her border visit, with Trump claiming credit for her decision to go.
Harris advisers have been careful to emphasize that her main focus related to immigration is addressing the root causes of migration. She has been seeking economic and humanitarian solutions to improve conditions for residents of Central and North American countries who flee to the U.S. Her aides framed her trip to the border as part of an effort to better understand how to solve the problem.
"What happens at the border matters, and is directly connected to what is happening in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras," said Harris spokeswoman Symone Sanders. "It is directly connected to the work of addressing the root causes of migration."
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.
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. Cuellar called her decision to visit El Paso "politically safe," because, he said, most of the activity at the border happens farther south.
Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino civil rights organization, 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," Garcia said.
But, still, Garcia said he was glad she was going, and expressed optimism that her visit could help the Biden administration correct its course on the immigration issue and show a contrast to the Trump administration’s hardline stance on border security.
"They should own this, and they should solve it, because it does need a bipartisan solution," he said.