Now that Harris has decided the time has come, the event will create a striking juxtaposition with a border trip five days later by former president Donald Trump, who will make the trip accompanied by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and a group of Republican lawmakers.
Harris is traveling with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and stop at El Paso. That city has seen a smaller influx of migrants than other stretches of the border, and the area is represented by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D), a strong supporter of the administration.
Republicans have taunted Harris for not visiting the border, but they have not been alone in pressuring her. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) recently sent the vice president a letter urging such a visit, saying the increase in migrants has caused “severe burdens” and adding, “I encourage you to join me and other members of Congress while we visit with the people on the ground who deal with these issues every day.”
Cuellar said in an interview Wednesday that Harris’s visit “will help us on the narrative,” which he said Democrats had ceded to Republicans. Still, he said, Harris’s itinerary skips the places with the greatest recent influx of immigrants. “It would have been a lot better to go down to the RGV, the Rio Grande Valley, where the activity’s at,” Cuellar said. “El Paso doesn’t have that type of activity.”
It was at El Paso, however, that during the Trump administration, the nation’s top border official warned that the immigration enforcement system along the border was at “the breaking point” — providing Harris a potentially favorable comparison Friday.
The mounting pressure from both parties has made it increasingly hard politically for Harris to continue staying away from the border, as officials there grapple with an influx of Latin Americans seeking to make their way into the United States. Critics have repeatedly sought to tie Harris to the border crisis — even calling her Biden’s “Border Czar,” a title she rejects — by highlighting her sometimes rocky efforts to explain why she has not gone there.
In March, Biden tasked Harris with leading the administration’s efforts to address the root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle — a region that includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — with the goal of combating the poverty and corruption that spur so many residents to leave. Harris traveled to Guatemala and Mexico earlier this month to meet with the presidents of both countries as part of that work.
The vice president has stressed that this task is a long-term proposition, very different from tackling the immediate crisis along the border, a job that falls to Mayorkas and his department. Republicans, however, have been eager to blur that distinction.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed the idea that Harris’s decision marked a change in approach, saying Harris had long “said she would be open to going to the border at an appropriate time.” Psaki added, “We didn’t want make the visit at a time when it would be disruptive.”
But Trump pounced on the news of Harris’s trip. “After months of ignoring the crisis at the Southern Border, it is great that we got Kamala D. Harris to finally go and see the tremendous destruction and death that they’ve created — a direct result of Biden ending my very tough but fair Border policies,” he said in a statement.
“Harris and Biden were given the strongest Border in American history. And now, it is by far the worst in American history,” Trump said. “If Governor Abbott and I weren’t going there next week, she would have never gone!”
The politics of the border, however, have been difficult for both parties. Trump was propelled to the White House largely by his promise to crack down on migrants and build a border wall, but once in office he was pummeled by criticism that his policies were cruel and inhumane — including by Harris and Biden.
Biden, in contrast, campaigned on a promise to take a more humane approach, but his first months as president have been marked by an influx of would-be immigrants, including unaccompanied minors. That has prompted criticism that he caused the influx by sending signals that the border would essentially be open.
That criticism is part of what led Harris to publicly urge Latin Americans on a recent trip to Guatemala, “Do not come.”
Psaki noted Wednesday that the number of migrants held by border officials has subsided, adding, “We’re at this point in part because we’ve made a great deal of progress.”
Asked if the White House felt it was important for Harris to go to the border before Trump does, Psaki said, “We made an assessment within our government about when it was an appropriate time for her to go.”
A White House aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the decision to go to the border was not a product of criticism by Trump or anyone else. The aide said Biden also did not pressure Harris to go this week.
Since immigration was added to Harris’s portfolio, both she and Biden have stressed that her efforts were diplomatic in nature — not managerial — and aimed at addressing the root causes of migration.
But during her two-day trip to Mexico and Guatemala earlier this month, she was repeatedly asked about the situation at the border. Ultimately, she said in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that she would travel to the border at some point.
In Guatemala, in a nod to the shifting political winds, Harris also took a notably stern tone toward potential migrants mulling a trip to the U.S. border. “Do not come,” she instructed during a news conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. “Do not come. You will be turned back.” A day later, she warned in Mexico, “It can be a very treacherous and dangerous trek.”
During the campaign, Biden and Harris criticized Trump’s family separation policy as particularly cruel, blasted his efforts to build a border wall and vowed to have an immigration policy that, they said, upheld America’s values.
But Biden’s administration has faced its own struggles to deal with the volatile issue, while in Congress, efforts to craft a broad immigration bill have shown little likelihood of success.
The administration Thursday forced out the head of the U.S. Border Patrol, Rodney Scott, who had appeared with Trump and defended his tough border policies during the presidential campaign. That led some colleagues to wonder privately if Scott’s behavior had become too partisan, and his ouster was not a surprise.
Last April, Biden nominated Ed Gonzalez, the sheriff of Harris County, Tex., and a critic of Trump’s immigration policies, to run U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Those moves came against the backdrop of a soaring number of border arrests since Biden took office, with May being the busiest month yet. The administration was initially overwhelmed by an influx of unaccompanied minors, but while those numbers have declined, they have been offset by an increase in single adults.
In all, U.S. authorities intercepted 180,034 migrants along the Mexico border in May. Officials have used a provision of the health code to return a majority to Mexico, but they often attempt entry again.
Nick Miroff and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.