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Harris defends El Paso trip, vows to address root causes of migration

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Updated 5:23 p.m.

Vice President Kamala Harris made it to the U.S.-Mexico border Friday, though her focus remained on what was happening south of the Rio Grande in the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Her first trip to the border since taking office “reinforced the nature of (the) root causes” driving Central Americans north, she told reporters before departing for Los Angeles.

“I strongly believe that most people don’t want to leave home and when they do, it is because either they are fleeing some harm, or because to stay means that they cannot provide for the basic necessities of their family.”

If the United States does not address the root causes of migration — violence, corruption, poverty and food insecurity — then communities like El Paso “will continue to see the effect, what is happening at the border,” she said.

Vice President Kamala Harris gets a briefing at the Northeast El Paso Border Patrol station on Friday. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via White House press pool)

Harris’ four-hour visit included tours of the U.S. Border Patrol processing center and later the Paso del Norte Port of Entry, where she met five Central American girls, ages 9 to 16, who had traveled north alone.

Fort Bliss absent from itinerary

Harris did not visit Fort Bliss, where the government has set up the largest processing center for unaccompanied migrant children. Just last month the facility held more than 4,000 children in conditions U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, and others called “unacceptable.” As of last week, the capacity had dipped to 2,300, according to the Department of Health and Human Services press office.

Various immigrant rights groups, including the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, have called for the immediate closure of the Fort Bliss shelter.

Harris’ spokesperson did not directly answer when asked in a Thursday media call why that site wasn’t on the itinerary.

“The administration is concerned by these reports and we do know that HHS has taken steps to address them,” Symone Sanders said. “This is serious for the president and the vice president, and we know it is serious and important for HHS … to ensure that the highest standards are being upheld.”

Immigration attorney Taylor Levy, who represents asylum seekers in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, said the vice president’s meeting with advocates working at the Fort Bliss shelter was as valuable as a site visit.

“Getting to hear those perspectives was just as good of a use of her time,” Levy said.

Levy was one of nine immigration advocates who met with Harris, Escobar, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Others included Anilu Chadwick, the managing attorney for the Fort Bliss shelter, and Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the El Paso Catholic Diocese, according to Harris’ staff. The discussion centered on factors that drive migrant to leave Central America.

Harris told advocates that she approaches migration policy with two guiding principles: that people do not want to leave their homes and that the United States “has the capacity to give people hope and the belief that help is on the way.”

This sentiment “was a wonderful way to set the tone,” Levy said. “The most common thread from what I hear from people is ‘no me queda de otra, ‘I had no other option,'” she said of the asylum-seeking families she represents.

It also marked a departure in tone from Harris’ visits earlier this month to Guatemala and Mexico, where she warned against illegal migration: “Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders…. If you come to our border, you will be turned back.”

That message was “devastating to us as advocates,” said Linda Rivas, executive director of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. Harris’ remarks today were “more in line from what we expected from this administration when it comes to its commitment to restore asylum and to respect the dignity of asylum seekers,” Rivas said.

BNHR and other groups have also called for an end to Title 42, a Trump-era public health rule that has allowed immigration agents to turn back most migrants attempting to enter the United States during the pandemic, including asylum seekers and refugees.

A demonstrator holds a sign demanding the end of Title 42, which authorizes Border Patrol to expel migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum, during an event Border Network for Human Rights organized in response to Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The New York Times and Axios reported that the Biden administration may start to phase out the rule over the course of the summer — a policy that could lead to an increase of migrants at the border.

On Friday, Mayorkas said the “decision whether or not to continue (Title 42 expulsions), and if to continue it how long, is based on (public health) data” and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “reviewing that intensely and consistently” and will make decisions according to the data.

Rivas said she and other advocates communicated that the border needs to be reopened and the asylum system restored, which “means ending Title 42.”

And while Harris’ visit to El Paso was a “redeeming move, there is still work to be done and we’re still going to hold her and the administration accountable,” Rivas said.

Harris defends choice to visit El Paso

Texas Republicans criticized the vice president’s choice to visit El Paso over the Rio Grande Valley, which annually sees higher numbers of migrant crossings. Gov. Greg Abbott and former President Donald Trump will visit the Valley June 30 for a town hall event with FOX News.

Harris defended that choice to reporters Friday.

“What is happening here in El Paso really … highlights many of the facets on the issue of immigration,” she said.

El Paso was where the Trump administration piloted a policy to separate migrant families that spread to the entire border in 2018, she said. It was also the first Texas border city to implement the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, a program that forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their hearings in American immigration courts, and which the Biden administration is working to undo.

This was Harris’ first trip to the Texas-Mexico border, according to her staff. She has previously only toured the California border while serving as senator and state attorney general.

Protesters wave flags as Vice President Kamala Harris’s motorcade leaves the Border Patrol station on Hondo Pass Drive. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Mayorkas said Friday he recommended El Paso “because it is one of the busiest sectors” across the border “and it provides the vice president with an opportunity to see the full array of challenges DHS deals with.”

As Harris left the region, Escobar said she felt hopeful because the Biden administration is “truly interested in addressing our challenges with strategy and humanity.”

“Addressing America’s immigration challenges and building a fair and humane immigration system doesn’t begin and doesn’t end with Vice President Harris nor at our nation’s front door,” Escobar said in a statement released late Friday. “It requires Congressional action, a multi-agency approach, international cooperation and hard work.”

Cover photo: Vice President Kamala Harris speaks with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas upon arrival at El Paso International Airport on Friday. They flew together on Air Force 2 to tour the border and meet with migrant advocates. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via White House media pool)

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Molly Smith and Victoria Rossi

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. Victoria Rossi is a gender reporter with El Paso Matters and a Report for America corps member. She has worked as a health and education journalist, an immigration paralegal, and a criminal justice researcher.

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