Harris says her migration czar role is ‘about bringing together’ cabinet secretaries

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Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday gave reporters a surprising explanation of how she views her role leading the Biden administration’s response to the migration crisis on the US-Mexico border — saying her focus has been “about bringing together” cabinet secretaries.

Harris gave the answer to reporters during an unrelated trip to North Carolina — seemingly reducing her role to coordinating among President Biden’s agency leaders.

“When we’re looking at my focus, which is a diplomatic focus on the Northern Triangle, it is about bringing together — as I did now, I think, a couple of weeks ago — the members of the Cabinet. And the progress there is that Commerce, for example, is going to host a virtual trade mission,” she said.

“The Department of Agriculture, under the leadership of Secretary Vilsack, is increasing its focus on the work that needs to happen to support the agricultural efforts of that region that have been decimated because of extreme climate, because of poverty. But it’s evidencing itself in a number of ways, including extreme food insecurity in that region. We’re bringing together USAID, which is increasing its work around its program that is focused on disaster relief.  So this is some of the work that’s happening.”

Harris’ precise role in addressing the widening crisis has been subject to confusion.

President Biden on March 24 asked her to lead the administration’s response to a surge of migrants at the border, including families and unaccompanied minors from the three-country “Northern Triangle” in Central America.

But the White House later emphasized she would address only the “root causes” of migration and not border enforcement.

A view of the US border fence, covered in concertina wire, separating the US and Mexico, at the outskirts of Nogales, Arizona, on February 9, 2019.

ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images

GOP Border Visit

The border wall stretches along the US-Mexico border on the Johnson Ranch near Columbus, NM, on Monday, April 12, 2021.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

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And Harris has been conspicuously uninvolved in directly handling the crisis during her 27 days as migration czar.

Harris has spoken by phone with the leaders of Guatemala and Mexico, but she has not visited the border or Central America, or spoken with the leaders of El Salvador and Honduras. 

Last week, Harris said she intends to travel to Latin America, including to Guatemala and Mexico, but a date has not been announced. 

In a biting letter Monday, the top Republicans on three House committees asked Harris for a meeting to discuss migration, writing, “it is unclear what, if any actions you have directed or plan to initiate to respond to the crisis that continues to worsen each day.”

Harris told reporters in North Carolina that “we are making progress, but let’s just be very clear: This is a complicated, complex issue that actually has been an issue for a long time.  And the work that we are putting into it now is work that is going to require a longstanding commitment beyond the administration’s.  It is work that is not going to evidence its impact overnight because the issues are so intractable.”

Harris said that in addition to connecting the Cabinet, she asked Japan’s visiting prime minster last week for help. She did not say if he agreed to do anything.

“As you know, I met last week with the Prime Minister of Japan and approached him about the work that Japan can do in (inaudible) to assist. We are also working through the U.N., with Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, around bringing our allies to really renew a focus in that region,” Harris said, according to a transcript released by her office.

Kamala Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at Guilford Technical Community College, Monday, April 19, 2021.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Kamala Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at Guilford Technical Community College, Monday, April 19, 2021.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

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“So it is something that is going to require diplomatic work.  It is something that is going to require a multilateral approach, in addition to what we can do with our agencies,” Harris added.
 
“This week, I’m bringing together foundation leaders from across our country to really encourage them to do more in terms of the civil society piece of this, which will be about both growing the work that they’ve already done historically, but also engaging civil society in the region — in the Northern Triangle.”

Republicans attribute the migrant surge to Biden border policy changes and say Biden-backed legislation that would allow citizenship for most illegal immigrants creates new “pull” factors. In February, Biden terminated former President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy that required Central American asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while US courts reviewed their claims.

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