Kamala Harris embarked on a trip to Mexico and Guatemala yesterday hoping to get support in tackling the surge of migrants flooding to the US southern border.
It will be the vice-president’s first foreign trip since taking office and comes weeks after Joe Biden asked her to handle the thorny issue of immigration from Central America, a role seen as something of a poisoned chalice.
Detentions of undocumented travellers along the US-Mexico border hit a 15-year record high in April, with nearly 180,000 people intercepted – more than 80 per cent of them coming from Mexico or the so-called Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Ms Harris left for Guatemala on Sunday, and will go on to Mexico to seek the co-operation of the country’s populist Left-wing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, during the country’s mid-term elections.
Relations between the US and Mexico have been strained recently after Mr López Obrador accused the Biden administration of funding “coup plotters” trying to undermine his government during a recent call with Ms Harris.
Ms Harris has been dubbed the administration’s “border tsar” by Republicans as they seek to make her the face of what they have repeatedly described as an immigration crisis.
The trip is in part a fact-finding mission as the administration tries to discover the root causes of the surge in migrants on the southern border.
Ahead of the trip, her office said that the vice president will take a “multi-pronged approach” also focusing on climate change, violence, poverty and food insecurity which, the administration argues, has underpinned the flood of migrants heading north to the US.
While the Biden administration has scored high approval ratings over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, voters have been unimpressed by its performance over immigration.
According to an AP-NORC survey last month, 54 per cent of respondents disapproved of the administration’s record on immigration.
On taking office, Mr Biden vowed to implement a more humane immigration policy than Donald Trump. He issued a blizzard of executive orders including imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations, establishing a task force to reunite children who had been separated from their parents and stopping funding for Mr Trump’s border wall.
Mr Biden also pledged to end the “remain in Mexico” policy of the previous administration which left asylum seekers in makeshift camps near the border while their cases were considered.
Humanitarian in intent, the policy appeared to have backfired on Mr Biden with the US on course for as many as two million migrants on its southern border.
There was an influx of unaccompanied minors which overwhelmed the immigration service and the optics of children crammed into overcrowded centres were politically disastrous and exploited with gusto by Republican politicians. Republican governors stepped up their attack on the vice president over the weekend.
“Since taking office over four months ago, Vice President Kamala Harris has not visited our southern border. Democrats created an overwhelming crisis at the border, and now they are blatantly ignoring the crisis they caused,” the Republican Governors Association said in a fund-raising email to supporters over the weekend.
“President Trump’s border security was a major step towards alleviating the crisis. This White House completely dismantled President Trump’s security and refuses to even address the issue.”