The Memo: Harris’s border trip leaves questions unanswered

Vice President Harris heads to the border on Friday, finally answering persistent demands that she should do so — but likely not quieting her critics.

Harris will go to El Paso, Texas, where she will be accompanied by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. It will be her first trip to the border since taking office.

Harris’s seeming reluctance to visit the border has drawn criticism from the right. But if that can be dismissed as predictable politics, her performance has also elicited some muttering from within her own party, even among people who don’t want to go on the record criticizing a sitting vice president.

A trip earlier this month to Mexico and Guatemala did not go well. A television interview with Lester Holt of NBC News saw Harris retreat into defensiveness. More generally, the question lingers as to why Harris and her team resisted going to the border for so long, allowing the issue to build to a crescendo.

To her allies, the criticisms are founded in bad faith — and in biases against the first Black woman ever to serve as vice president.

But to others, the border issue reignites questions about Harris’s political skills — questions that previously swirled during her 2020 presidential campaign, which started with high expectations but sputtered. In the end, Harris withdrew from the race before the first contest, the Iowa caucuses.

“Harris has played this really badly,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, referring to Harris’s position on going to the border. “She responds without, really, a lot of savvy to what should not be difficult situations.”

As the number of people crossing the border without authorization in recent months has soared, conservatives have taken numerous shots at the Biden administration’s handling of the issue.

Harris, whose portfolio includes two political hot potatoes in migration and voting rights, has often been in their crosshairs.

Fox News, in particular, has long focused on Harris’s refusal to go to the border, with the network’s website keeping a near-daily tally of how long has passed without a Harris visit.

Now that she is agreeing to go, the Republican National Committee (RNC) is arguing that she is going to the wrong specific place. 

In an email to reporters Thursday, an RNC spokesperson asserted that the El Paso sector of the border is protected by a border wall and that it had fewer than half as many attempted illegal border crossings in May compared to the Rio Grande Valley.

Her Friday trip, the RNC concluded, is “more about politics than actually solving the crisis.”

Those kind of potshots are par for the course in presidential politics. But some of the missteps Harris has made are perplexing even to people sympathetic to her politics.

The Hill has previously reported on the consternation even in Democratic circles about her trip to Mexico and Guatemala trip.

Questions about the failure to go to the border overshadowed almost all else at that time, while Harris’s admonishment of would-be asylum seekers from Guatemala — “Do not come,” she said — drew criticism from the left, most notably Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Ocasio-Cortez branded Harris’s attitude “disappointing” and suggested it did not sufficiently acknowledge the negative effects of U.S. policy in Latin America.

In the wake of that criticism, Harris’s office released a statement insisting that she and Biden simply wanted to be “clear in dissuading people from making the dangerous and treacherous journey to the U.S./Mexico border” and that Harris “is committed to addressing the root causes of migration.” 

On Thursday, The New York Times reported that two travel officials in Harris’s office would be leaving their positions. A Harris spokeswoman said that the departures were long planned, according to the Times. But that will hardly stop eyebrows from being raised when such departures come in an administration that is less than six months old.

Also on Thursday, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) — perhaps the most persistent voice in the party pressing Harris to come to the border — took another jab at her.

Asked during a Fox News appearance whether he ever heard back from Harris on his “invitations” to visit, Cuellar replied, “No, we didn’t.”

He added: “We heard about it from the news, like everybody else. In fact, I talked to some other Texas Democrats, they had no idea until they saw it in the news. So again, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat or Republican, you got to pay courtesy to the members of Congress that are down there at the border.”

Harris’s initial reluctance to visit may be rooted in the distinction her staff have tried to draw pertaining to her actual role.

When migration became part of her portfolio, there was a concerted effort to push back against the idea that she was expected to solve the border crisis. Rather, her role is to grapple with migration at its roots — a much longer-term project.

The political motivation in separating the two facets of the issue is plain enough. Harris, who is widely expected to run for president again, doesn’t need to be shackled to a large-scale problem that defies an easy solution. 

In May, around 180,000 people attempting to cross the southwest border encountered U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, according to official figures. It was one of the highest figures on record.

To most voters, though, quibbling over the exact definition of Harris’s role is hair-splitting.

She has become the member of the administration most associated with immigration — which is in itself an unenviable position to be in, given that immigration is one of the issues on which President Biden’s polling numbers are weakest.

It’s notable, too, that in some polls the share of the public that views Harris unfavorably is slightly higher than for Biden. 

In an Economist-You Gov poll conducted earlier this week, for example, Harris’s “very unfavorable” number was higher than Biden’s among the public at large — 35 percent for her, 31 percent for him — and among several demographic groups.

Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, diplomatically made the case that she is unfairly treated in an interview with NBC’s “Today” broadcast Thursday.

“She has faced challenges as a groundbreaker her whole career,” Emhoff said. “When you’re breaking barriers, there’s breaking involved, and breaking means you might get cut sometimes, but that’s okay.”

But to others, the problem is more specific than that.

Harris is going to the border on Friday to try to cool a controversy that never needed to grow so hot in the first place.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.  

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Arizona border security Doug Emhoff Guatemala Harris border trip Immigration Joe Biden Mexico New Mexico Texas
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