The Memo

The Memo: Harris, Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic divide on immigration

Two of the biggest names in the Democratic Party have split over one of the most vexing issues facing President Biden.

Vice President Harris, on her first international trip since taking office, issued a stark warning to would-be migrants from Guatemala on Monday. “Do not come, do not come,” she said at a news conference. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) swiftly branded Harris’s comments “disappointing” and pointed out that seeking asylum at the U.S. border is “a 100% legal method of arrival.”

The congresswoman from New York went on to link migration to past and present U.S. policies in Latin America. In effect, she told Harris and the Biden administration that they needed to show more empathy.

“We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

The public disagreement is given an added twist because Harris is universally assumed to harbor future presidential ambitions, and a White House quest by Ocasio-Cortez, the left’s most charismatic star, is also plausible. But, more substantively, the dispute has spotlighted yet another fundamental tension between centrist and progressive Democrats.

To those in the center, there is an urgent need, above all, to quell the flow of migrants to the southern border. 

Harris, asked by reporters about Ocasio-Cortez’s comments, emphasized that she, too, is concerned with “root causes.” But politically speaking, she seems to acknowledge that it will be very difficult to sustain a focus on those root causes unless the migrant numbers are reduced.

“We need to prioritize what’s happening at the border and we have to prioritize why people are going to the border,” Harris said at a Tuesday news conference in Mexico City.

The latest figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show “encounters” between agents and people seeking to cross the southwestern border rising above 170,000 in both March and April this year. 

Those are the largest numbers in a couple of decades. Conservative media outlets have turned “Biden’s border crisis” into a slogan with which to berate the new administration.

Yet, progressives like Ocasio-Cortez look at the situation through a wholly different lens. 

Their argument is that the United States cannot absolve itself of moral responsibility for northward migration, given the American policies that have exacerbated Latin America’s problems in the first place. This history, the left suggests, encompasses not just the bloody history of U.S. involvement in coups and civil wars in Central America, but also American economic policy and even the failure to mount a more effective strategy to counter climate change. 

Guatemala, the site of Harris’s controversial remarks, was ravaged by two hurricanes in November that also caused extensive damage elsewhere in Central America.

In her tweeted jab at Harris, Ocasio-Cortez made clear how all-encompassing she considers the migration question to be.

“It would be helpful if the US would finally acknowledge its contributions to destabilization and regime change in the region,” she wrote. “Doing so can help us change US foreign policy, trade policy, climate policy, & carceral border policy to address causes of mass displacement and migration.”

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y) said he had some sympathy with both Harris’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s positions.

“I don’t think the vice president was necessarily saying harshly, ’Don’t come, We’ll push you out,’ ” he told this column. “The vice president is a daughter of immigrants. I’m sure she is sensitive to that.”

But he also noted that his experience as a native of the Dominican Republic gives him some insight into the capacity of the U.S. to overreach. 

The Caribbean nation has its own history of “ill-advised intervention” from Washington, he said. “I know what that is.”

“The long-term crisis in the region, which is driving people to leave, is multifaceted,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University and an expert on Latin America. “It is the lack of economic opportunity, the lack of civilian security and then climate change and the way it has been impacting Central America. For lots of poor people, the region is becoming unlivable.” 

The political problem, he added, is that this “is a terribly difficult argument to make in the United States. … Donald Trump built his presidency around attacking immigrants, and Republicans are seizing on the border crisis to attack Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. It is just very difficult politically for Democrats.”

Among major, frequently polled issues, immigration is the one where Biden fares by far the worst. Aides to Harris, nervous that she is being set up to fail if she doesn’t conjure a magic solution out of thin air, have tried to stress that there is no quick fix to the issue. 

Those sympathetic to her “do not come” comment saw it not as callous, but as an effort to rebut false claims made by smugglers, who profit from telling desperate people that getting into the United States is a cinch.

“I saw it more as, ‘Be careful, don’t put yourself in danger,’ ” said Espaillat.

On top of all that, there’s the simple fact that immigration generally has proven a problematic issue for all recent presidents bar one — former President Trump, whose actions and rhetoric appalled liberal advocates but enraptured his base.

Add all that up, and it makes it hard to create space for the kind of discussion Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives might like to have — about the effects of U.S. trade policy, or the historical legacy of the U.S. backing a coup in Guatemala in the 1950s or arming the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. 

However, that doesn’t stop groups working on migration from expressing frustration at Harris’s remarks.

“It shows the lack of knowledge about the complexity of the immigration phenomenon, and I think also shows that this administration unfortunately doesn’t have a roadmap to deal with that,” Fernando García, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, told this column.

“The same message was sent to immigrants in Mexico and Central America by Trump — ‘Don’t come,’ ” he added. “The immigration issue is not about whether people want to come or not. There is no option.”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Adriano Espaillat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Donald Trump Joe Biden

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