Biden taps Harris to lead on immigration amid border crisis

President BidenJoe BidenPfizer CEO says vaccine data for those under 5 could be available by end of year Omicron coronavirus variant found in at least 10 states Photos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles MORE has tapped Vice President Harris to lead the administration’s efforts to stem the flow of migrants seeking entry to the U.S. at the southern border and to form partnerships with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries aimed at addressing the root causes of the surge in immigration.

Harris will spearhead the White House’s immigration portfolio so that Mexico and the Northern Triangle will know “there is one single figure dedicated to this effort,” a senior administration official said.

Biden announced the move on Wednesday from the White House after meeting with Harris, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump's pre-debate COVID-19 test sparks criticism Biden unveils updated strategy to end HIV epidemic by 2030 Buttigieg has high name recognition, favorability rating in Biden Cabinet: survey MORE, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasHillicon Valley —TSA to strengthen rail sector cybersecurity TSA issues directives to rail sector to strengthen cybersecurity US to restart 'Remain in Mexico' program following court order MORE, and several other immigration advisers.

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“I have asked her, the VP, today, because she is the most qualified person to do it, to lead our efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle and the countries that are going to need help in stemming the movement of so many folks, stemming the migration to our southern border,” Biden said.

A White House official said Harris’s work will run along two tracks — first to address the swell of migrants at the southern border, and second to build long-term partnerships with the Central American countries the people are fleeing.

“She’ll work first on the goal of stemming the flow of irregular migrants to the U.S. … but at the same time, the real goal is to establish a strategic partnership with these countries based on respect and shared values,” the official said.

Harris’s appointment comes at a critical time for the Biden administration, which is struggling to handle a surge of migrant children seeking entry to the U.S.

The Biden administration is turning away many of the thousands of migrants who have made the dangerous journey from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

But the U.S. under Biden is accepting unaccompanied minors, who have arrived in record numbers.

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The U.S. is in custody of at least 15,000 migrant children and the Biden administration is struggling to provide housing and care for all of them.

Thousands are being kept at Border Patrol cells meant for adults for days longer than is legally allowed. Photos of the facilities show packed cells of migrant children sleeping in crowded pods on hard floors underneath space blankets.

Biden on Wednesday blamed the surge on former President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — State Dept. employees targets of spyware Ohio Republican Party meeting ends abruptly over anti-DeWine protesters Jan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth MORE’s immigration policies, but acknowledged “it is our responsibility to deal with it humanely and to stop what is happening.”

The Biden administration is trying to quickly move the children out of Border Patrol facilities and into housing overseen by HHS, where they have access to educational, health and legal services.

The administration has opened up several new facilities to handle the surge, including a tent city in Midland, Texas, and a convention center in Dallas.

“The focus in the near term will be on stemming the flow of migrants to the U.S.,” the official said, a process that will include securing the border, providing a surge in humanitarian assistance and creating legal pathways for migrants to come to the U.S.

Many migrants are fleeing Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries to escape economic instability violence, corruption and extreme weather events.

The administration official said the longer term goal will be to address the underlying conditions in those countries by combating corruption, enforcing border security, implementing good governance practices, overseeing diplomatic efforts and other long term strategies that “get at the root causes of migration.”

"While we are clear that people should not come to the border now, we also understand that we will enforce the law and that we also — because we can chew gum and walk at the same time — must address the root causes that cause people to make the trek as the president has described to come here," Harris said.

“I look forward to engaging in diplomacy with government, with private sector, with civil society and the leaders of each in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to strengthen democracy and the rule of law and ensure shared prosperity in the region.”

On Monday, the State Department named Ricardo Zúñiga, a career member of the senior foreign service, as its new special envoy to direct efforts to stem migration from the Northern Triangle.

Zúñiga "will hold our partners accountable for their commitments to address root causes of migration and the increase in arrivals of unaccompanied children at the U.S. southern border," the department said in a release.

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Biden has pledged to invest $4 billion in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to address those root causes, but the money has not yet been appropriated by Congress.

Complicating and exacerbating the situation is the coronavirus pandemic.

HHS confirmed to The Hill on Wednesday that since March 24 of last year, nearly 3,000 unaccompanied migrant children have tested positive for COVID-19, including 319 currently in isolation due to a positive test. 

HHS said 2,587 of the children have recovered and have moved out of medical isolation, while 1,819 have moved from isolation and have since been discharged to a sponsor. 

The White House faces ongoing criticism over its lack of transparency at border facilities, and what photos and videos have been released of conditions inside them have only heightened the scrutiny. 

Administration officials are a member of the media were set Wednesday to tour a facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. 

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Speaking with CBS News earlier Wednesday, Harris urged patience.

"It's going to take some time," she said. "And are we frustrated, are you frustrated? Yes, we are."

—Updated at 3:22 p.m.