President Joe Biden is putting Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of the U.S. response to the influx of migrants that has overwhelmed shelters at the U.S. southern border.
Biden made the announcement at a White House meeting Wednesday with two officials responsible for dealing with a growing number of migrant children: Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra.
By tasking Harris with the problem, Biden is signaling to lawmakers and the public that he’s treating the issue seriously. The move comes as both Democrats and Republicans in Congress warn of a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.
It’s the first issue that Biden has publicly asked Harris to lead, and the move was meant as a display of trust in her leadership, according to a senior administration official who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity. Harris’s law enforcement background as the former attorney general of California was an important factor in the choice, the official said.
In the coming weeks, Harris is expected to meet with leaders in Mexico as well as those in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — three countries that make up the Northern Triangle most migrants travel from. She’s also been asked to help develop strategies to stop the flow of migrants and address the root causes of migration by addressing lack of jobs and corruption in Central America.
The surge of migrants has forced Biden to take on immigration policy — a bitterly divisive issue — as he seeks to rally support across the nation for his virus relief plan and build enthusiasm for another major spending bill.
A delegation of White House officials also is visiting a temporary HHS facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, along with several members of Congress. A television camera will be allowed to cover the tour. Previously, the government has blocked news organizations from entering the facilities, citing the potential spread of coronavirus.
The trip comes after Biden sent a delegation led by southwest border coordinator Roberta Jacobson to Mexico and Guatemala for high-levels talks on stemming the flow of migrants.
While the Biden administration has few options in the short term to stop the wave of unaccompanied children and teenagers coming to the U.S., it is rushing to create more space to house them. Images of children and teens crowded together inside border facilities have drawn national attention and heightened scrutiny of Biden’s handling of the situation.
Republicans have blamed the surge on Biden’s welcoming rhetoric regarding immigration and his efforts to roll back former President Donald Trump’s tough policies. The White House has pushed back on those claims, saying that the wave began while Trump was president and is primarily driven by the struggling economies and unsafe conditions in Central American countries.
More than 15,000 unaccompanied migrant children are in the custody of HHS and Customs and Border Protection, according to agency data. Under the law, children who are apprehended are supposed to spend no more than 72 hours in CBP custody before they are transferred to HHS shelters.
But lack of shelter space — already in shorter supply due to pandemic-related distancing restrictions — has forced many children to stay in CBP facilites that are unfit for children for longer than three days.
As a result, the administration reopened the emergency site at Carrizo Springs and is exploring other options, including housing them at military bases. The Defense Department said Tuesday it received a request from HHS to temporarily shelter the children at Joint Base San Antonio and Fort Bliss in Texas. Roughly 1,500 migrant teens have been taken to the Dallas convention center.
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