Updated at 1:50 p.m.
EL PASO — Accused of being a “border czar” who avoided the border and then finally picked a spot where the migrant surge is less acute, Vice President Kamala Harris said Friday that El Paso was an apt choice because it was ground zero for so many discredited Trump-era policies.
“It is here in El Paso that the previous administration’s child separation policy was unveiled,” she said, and where then-President Donald Trump in late 2018 implemented the “remain in Mexico” policy that barred asylum-seekers from entering the country until their claims were adjudicated, despite U.S. law and tradition. “We have seen the disaster that resulted from that here in El Paso.”
Pressure had escalated for months for Harris to make her first border visit as vice president, especially after President Joe Biden made her his point person on a crisis that took his administration by surprise.
Just two weeks ago in Guatemala, Harris had dismissed the need for her own border visit, saying it would be a mere “grand gesture” compared with the diplomacy needed to address the poverty, corruption and violence that prompt people to flee north in search of safety and opportunity.
Then Gov. Greg Abbott and Trump announced that they would visit the border next Wednesday. That appeared to force Harris’ hand, though the White House says the timing had nothing to do with that.
Even Friday, she argued that her efforts away from the border remained more important.
“We have to deal with causes, and we have to deal with the effects,” she said, adding that a visit to El Paso was about “looking at the effects of what we have seen happening in Central America.”
But most migrants caught crossing the border illegally in the El Paso area are from Mexico.
The Rio Grande Valley — 800 miles closer to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — is historically the main entry point for migrants from that region, and lawmakers in both parties said that’s where she should have gone to understand the magnitude of the crisis.
Air Force Two landed at El Paso’s airport, a short drive from a vast tent city for young migrants at Fort Bliss, which has held as many as 5,000 children and generated complaints of filth, neglect and understaffing. Harris did not stop in for a look, a choice that critics also called a missed opportunity.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra will make an inspection visit Monday. Officials say that conditions have improved, complaints are being taken seriously, and the number of children is down to 1,500.
“The border is not all the same,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wrote on Twitter as Harris arrived. “But why would she deliberately avoid that part of the border where she would be likely to learn the most about the consequences of Biden-Harris immigration policy failures and how to correct them?”
Although the Border Patrol encounters far more migrants in the Valley, El Paso has outsized significance in the continuing fights over border policy and the treatment of immigrants.
It’s where Trump kicked off his reelection campaign in early 2019 with a rally intended to highlight his demands for a border wall. Six months later, a gunman who had penned an anti-immigrant manifesto drove from North Texas and killed 23 people at a Walmart there, targeting Latinos.
“El Paso has been and will likely always be the epicenter for immigration issues in the United States,” said Richard Pineda, a political analyst at the University of Texas at El Paso, calling it a city with “tremendous symbolic power” in one of nation’s most contentious debates.
Harris spent 4½ hours in El Paso, traveling with Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat; Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso; and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. She left at 1:30 p.m. Dallas time, heading to Los Angeles.
Mayorkas emphasized that it was his responsibility, not hers, “to address security management of our border,” refuting GOP critics who insist on dubbing her the “border czar.” And he said he recommended El Paso for her visit because “it is one of the busiest sectors on the border” and a site that shows “the progress that has been made and the work that remains.”
At the Paso del Norte border crossing, one of the country’s busiest, Harris toured an outdoor area where vehicles are inspected for contraband. Inside, in an area where asylum applicants are screened, she met with five Central American girls, ages 9 to 16.
They drew pictures for her and they told her what they wanted to be when they grow up: veterinarian, police officer, civil engineer, doctor.
One asked her for advice.
Harris urged them to work hard, study, dream and hope, according to aides.
“It’s a good chance for the vice president to get some ground truth on what is happening at the border and how the issues in Central America connect closely to the United States,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute.
Ports of entry have been closed to nonessential travel since March 2020 because of the pandemic. Biden has extended the restriction at least through July 21. But many Americans are able to shop south of the border under some pretext, a source of irritation to residents of Ciudad Juárez who are unable to enjoy free movement back and forth.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, blasted Biden for hampering innocent shoppers while “leaving the border open to illegal aliens, smugglers, and drugs.”
And he mocked Harris for a “glorified photo-op” after she “finally made time in her schedule to acknowledge the humanitarian, national security, and public health crisis her administration created —albeit some 800 miles from the epicenter of the crisis.”
At Paso del Norte, helicopters hovered overhead and security was tight.
Andrea Durazo, 60, wants Biden to make good on his pledge to grant legal residency to some of the millions who are in the country illegally. “We should welcome them just like they welcomed me,” she said.
She also wants restrictions lifted to let the border go back to normal. “We need our brothers and sisters in Juárez,” she said. “End the separation.”
Harris toured Customs and Border Protection’s central processing center and met with migrant advocates and nonprofit groups that provide shelter and legal services. Afterward, she recounted “horrendous tales of abuse and fear and harm” endured by migrants before they left home and at the hands of coyotes and cartels during the journey north.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about human beings,” she said, adding that she and Biden have vowed to restore an “orderly and humane” immigration system.
Escobar was pleased that Harris accepted her invitation to visit.
“El Paso is the perfect place to continue on her exploration of the issue of why people are leaving their communities,” the congresswoman said. “I feel very hopeful because for the first time in at least four years we have an administration interested in addressing this significant challenge in a multifaceted way.”
Dozens of protesters lined the streets for a glimpse of the vice president.
Trump supporters held professionally printed signs with messages such as “Kamala, you know Trump Won,” “Kamala do you hear their screams?” and “Que Mala Hates Mexicans” — a play on the vice president’s first name. “Que Mala” translates to “how mean.”
Tania Guerrero, a longtime legal rights activist across the border in Juárez who wants Trump-era policies erased more quickly, complained that under Biden, “families are still being separated.”
Biden has left in place the Trump administration’s use of a public health rule, Title 42, to immediately expel migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic, though he carved out an exception for minors caught without a parent or a legal guardian.
Given the heavy security at the three ports of entry between El Paso and Juárez, Guerrero said, “and how militarized our border has become, it would even be better if she crossed the border, and saw how … policies that she supports keep people on the Mexican side in extremely dangerous conditions while they wait, while they’re metered, while they’re fleeing for their lives.”
Mayorkas, asked about Title 42, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “reviewing that intensely and consistently” and will make decisions based on evolving public health data.
Border-Mexico correspondent Alfredo Corchado reported from El Paso, and Washington bureau chief Todd J. Gillman reported from Washington. Staff writer Marisol Chávez in El Paso contributed to this report.