After four hours in this city on the US-Mexico border, Vice President Kamala Harris was all smiles as she walked across the tarmac to Air Force Two.
“Let’s take a picture!” she excitedly told the press gathered under the plane’s wing in the nearly 100-degree heat on Friday. As for additional questions? Those she would not answer, instead walking away amid shouts of “Madam Vice President.”
Harris had already accomplished what she came here to achieve: release months of pressure on her to visit the southern border while avoiding igniting any new controversies. And she wasn’t about to risk unchecking that box mere steps from her ride home.
At each of her three stops in El Paso, Harris and her team seemed intent on dutifully going through the motions of an official visit to the border while seeking to create as little noise as possible.
At a Border Patrol processing facility, the vice president listened intently as Border Patrol and US Customs and Border Protection officials briefed her on improvements in processing migrants. At her second stop – the Paso del Norte Port of Entry – another CBP official walked her through technological improvements in screenings while showing her pictures on a poster of overcrowding at the facility in 2016. And before Harris left the city, she sat down with nonprofit activists and faith leaders working to help migrants, ticking through the sea-change in policy from the Trump administration and her work to address the root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle countries.
The trip also gave Harris an opportunity to draw a contrast between the current administration’s policies and those of the Trump administration, which she lambasted for creating “inhumane conditions” at the border. She also pointed out that the Trump administration’s family separation policy was first test-piloted in El Paso.
The visit produced sober, sterile images of a vice president doing a traditional border visit while avoiding any messaging stumbles akin to those on her first foreign trip – stumbles that brought the pressure on her to visit the border to a crescendo.
Friday’s visit also avoided creating any images that would tie Harris to the government’s difficulties in processing a surge of migrants at the US-Mexico border in recent months.
Unlike then-Vice President Mike Pence’s July 2019 visit to the border, which saw him appear alongside hundreds of migrants at a crowded detention facility in McAllen, Texas, Harris did not appear on camera at a detention facility or alongside any migrants. Nor did she visit the nearby border wall.
Instead, she met behind closed doors with five girls, aged 9 to 16, from Central America, who she said were “full of hope” despite their circumstances.
Harris also eschewed a visit to Fort Bliss, the US Army base that currently houses about 1,500 unaccompanied migrant children in a tent complex that is the subject of reports of poor living conditions and mental health distress among the facility’s children.
Harris spokeswoman Symone Sanders did not answer when asked why Harris did not visit the facility, which is just 2 miles from the El Paso airport, but said the administration is taking reports of unsafe conditions “extremely seriously.” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, whose department oversees the migrant facility, is scheduled to visit on Monday.
Harris and her team were wary of casting her trip on Friday as a result of media pressure and criticism from Republicans that she had yet to visit the border, insisting instead that she had always planned to come following a trip to Central America.
“It was always the plan to come here,” Harris told reporters as she arrived on Friday.
Even as she finally came to the border, she still faced criticism from Republicans as well as from conservative Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas for not visiting the Rio Grande Valley, which has been the epicenter of this year’s migrant surge.
Harris was also careful to repeatedly frame her trip to the border as part of her mission to tackle the root causes of migration, amid attempts by Republicans to label her the Biden administration’s “border czar.”
“This has been a trip that also is connected with the very obvious point: If you want to deal with a problem, you can’t just deal with the symptom of the problem,” she said. “You gotta figure out what caused it to happen.”