The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans try to crown Harris the ‘border czar.’ She rejects the title.

Vice President Harris takes part in a virtual meeting on April 14, 2021, with national security experts. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) sent a letter Thursday to the White House asking it to label Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations, and he took the opportunity to refer again to Vice President Harris as the nation’s “border czar.”

Another Republican, Nikki Haley, a Trump-era ambassador to the United Nations, shared a meme that included Harris in a “Where’s Waldo” hat. “Where’s Kamala? Everywhere but the border,” the meme read, adding that Harris has in contrast traveled to several cities led by Democrats.

And at a news conference on immigration, House Republicans used a milk carton with Harris’s picture on it as a prop. It read, “Missing at the border: Vice President Kamala Harris.”

“If she’s the vice president of the United States and the president put her in charge of this, Vice President Harris needs to go down to the border and see this for herself,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who recently traveled to the border with other Republicans. “Because maybe she would then encourage President Biden to reverse his policies that have failed.”

As the vice president wades into a new role addressing the root causes of migration out of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, Republicans are rushing to connect her to the surge in migrants at the border, losing few opportunities to use “Harris” and “border” in the same sentence, often with “czar.”

The GOP pile-on is an effort to link Harris to a policy that has confounded presidents of both parties for decades and threatens to overshadow Biden’s handling of other major issues. And it is a clear effort to hobble Harris, who is widely seen as a presidential aspirant and a potential heir to Biden, particularly if the 78-year-old decides not to seek reelection in 2024.

But the Republican effort also highlights the administration’s difficulty in defining Harris’s new role for the public. In a stream of news briefings, interviews and statements, the administration — and Harris herself — have struggled to make clear which problems Harris is trying to solve and what is outside her purview.

Harris’s mission, as directed by Biden, is to meet with heads of state and other officials to tackle the enduring problems, including poverty and violence, that spur people south of the U.S. border with Mexico to migrate to the United States. She is also being briefed by an array of experts on policies that affect the flow of migrants.

But administration officials, from the president down, have stressed that she is not responsible for dealing with the surge of migrants at the border, including the record number of unaccompanied minors.

That distinction might be lost on voters, however. And that may be what Republicans are counting on.

On Wednesday, after a meeting with immigration experts, Harris was asked whether she would visit the southern border. She twice explained that Biden has asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to address border issues and said that “he has been working very hard at that, and it’s showing some progress because of his hard work.”

Harris added that she had talked to the presidents of Guatemala and Mexico and that she planned to go to Guatemala “as soon as possible.”

“We also have to deal with the root causes, otherwise we are just in a perpetual system of only dealing with the symptoms,” Harris said.

Although Biden has received high marks for many of his policies, Republicans see a weakness in his stance on immigration. Biden’s approval rating stood at 59 percent amid his generally well-regarded handling of the coronavirus pandemic and vaccination efforts. And his administration was able to push a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief effort through Congress, putting $1,400 into the pockets of many Americans without any Republican support.

But the administration has struggled to contain a steep increase in migrant numbers at the country’s southern border, which has seen its biggest surge in two decades. The nation is on pace to receive as many as 2 million migrants this year, more than the population of Phoenix, the nation’s fifth-largest city. And critics have asked whether Biden’s reputation for leniency is motivating more people to take the risk of coming to the U.S. border.

Since the campaign, Biden has vowed to have an immigration policy that is more humane than his predecessor’s. Biden issued five executive orders on immigration on his first day. The administration also began allowing unaccompanied minors into the country, a departure from former president Donald Trump’s approach.

Last week, Roberta Jacobson, the top White House official in charge of addressing the migrant crisis at the southern border, announced that she would leave her post at the end of April. Her job had been to coordinate the administration’s efforts, and some referred to her as the “border czar.”

Biden on March 24 made Harris the nation’s point person to address the root causes of the migration north. Officials said her main goal would be to slow the flow of migrants by working with countries to address the reasons their citizens leave home in the first place. Harris was directed to strengthen relationships with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — to stem the tide.

Republicans, including some with presidential ambitions, began calling her “border czar” shortly afterward, in an effort to tie her to what has become a politically explosive situation.

“Now that President Biden has named you Border Czar, in charge of the Administration’s response, I want to express to you the threats and challenges caused by this administrations’s open border policies,” Abbott wrote in his first of several letters on immigration. Representatives for Abbott did not return a call seeking comment.

Hemispheric migration can be fueled by a complex interplay of factors — a lack of economic opportunity, gang violence, political corruption, climate change and even the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the announcement, Harris is reported to be focused on behind-the-scenes work, reading up on the issues and attending meetings with experts. She has held calls with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to discuss migration. On Wednesday, she met with a group of outside experts and said she is planning a trip to Mexico and Guatemala.

In the same period, she also has visited Oakland, Calif., to tout Biden’s infrastructure plan and toured a Chicago vaccination site. And she accompanied Biden to Georgia to meet with Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders after shootings at several spas that killed eight, including six women of Asian descent. Next week, Harris is to visit Greensboro, N.C.

Republicans have pounced on her choice to travel domestically without first cementing a plan to visit immigration-related areas, saying this indicates a lack of urgency on her part.

In Oakland, she was greeted by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who was one of the first leaders to endorse Harris for president in 2019. Lee said in an interview that she saw the GOP characterizations as a way to “sabotage” Harris.

“We have to understand that this is part of their playbook,” Lee said. “When the noise comes from the Republicans and from people who are trying to sabotage the president and vice president’s efforts, you know, you listen to them and you keep doing the work.”

Vice President Kamala Harris: What you need to know

Turning point: Vice President Harris faces a critical moment as President Biden passes the halfway point of his term. If he seeks reelection as expected, she would be a central part of the campaign. If he steps aside, she would instantly move to center stage as Biden’s potential successor. But some Democrats are worried about Harris’s political strength.

Her career: Kamala Harris, a daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, made history as the nation’s first female vice president. Harris has seized on abortion rights as a key issue and sought to position herself as her party’s leading advocate on the issue. Here’s more background on Harris’s family, policies and career.