Kamala Harris pledged to visit the US-Mexico border, after the vice president urged the US and neighbouring countries to address the “root causes” of migration while Joe Biden’s administration seeks to repair an asylum system upended by Donald Trump against a tide of recent migration fuelled by the coronavirus pandemic, violence and drained economies.
She called Republican criticism amplified by right-wing media that has pressed her to visit the border “shortsighted” and said it fails to confront the realities for migrants in their home countries.
“I think it’s shortsighted for any of us who are in the business of problem solving to suggest we’re only going to respond to the reaction as opposed to addressing the cause,” she said from Mexico on Tuesday.
“The problem at the border, in large part if not entirely, stems from the problems in these countries,” the vice president said. “I cannot say it enough. Most people do not want to leave home, and when they do, it is usually for one of two reasons – either fleeing harm, or to stay home means they cannot [receive] the basic needs to sustain and take care of their families.”
She argued that to address the impact of migration on the nation’s southern border, “we have to have the ability to address the root causes of why people leave, and we have to understand – if it is a priority to us to be concerned with what is happening at our border, then it must be a priority for us to understand why people leave”.
The vice president was criticised on Monday for her message of “hope” to Guatemalans and a warning to migrants not to come to the US.
“I want to emphasise that the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home,” she said during a press conference in Guatemala with President Alejandro Giammattei in Guatemala City.
“At the same time, I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border,” she said. “Do not come. Do not come.”
Her remarks on Tuesday also follow the anticipated release of a progress report from the US Department of Homeland Security on the state of family reunification for the thousands of families still separated after their expulsion under the Trump administration and its “zero tolerance” policy that sought to criminally prosecute asylum seekers.
A DHS task force discovered that 1,786 children were reunified with their families in the US and in their home countries, most of them prior to the creation of the task force within the first days of the Biden administration.
There are an estimated 2,127 children “who may remain separated from their parents”, the report found.
Of the more than 1,600 parents and 400 children deported by the administration, they were together in only 2 per cent of those cases, according to the report.
In her primetime remarks on Tuesday, the vice president condemned the Trump-era policy and committed to reunifying children with their parents, as immigrant advocates and civil rights groups press the DHS to accelerate its efforts.
The visit – her first foreign trip as vice president – concluded with a commitment between the US and Mexico president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to combat poverty, persecution and corruption in Central America.
She also promoted protections for organised labour, entrepreneurship among women, and quality-of-life improvements in a region devastated by hurricanes, corruption, violence and economic fallout.
Her pacts with Central American leaders will also support anti-drug trafficking measures and efforts to combat human smuggling.
The Biden administration also will support loans for affordable housing and infrastructure development, according to a statement from Ms Harris’s adviser Symone Sanders.
The administration also has requested additional security along the Mexico-Guatemala border.
“The issue of root causes won’t be solved in one trip that took two days,” she told reporters on Tuesday.
Addressing those issues “must be done with a commitment to going deep and making a commitment over a period of time knowing [it] won’t be addressed overnight,” she said. “It would do a disservice … to address the root causes as if it’s something that can be dealt with overnight.”
The vice president said she did not discuss Title 42, a public health policy invoked under the Trump administration and kept in place under Mr Biden during the pandemic, turning asylum seekers away from the US without having a chance to apply. It is legal to seek asylum at ports of entry, and one can only apply for asylum in the US.
As a senator, Ms Harris accused the Trump administration of abusing the policy.