By Steve Herman
U.S. President Joe Biden has selected Vice President Kamala Harris to take charge of one of the biggest issues confronting his administration in its early months — the flow of migrants arriving at the country’s southern border.
“We’re going to be dealing with a full team now,” Biden said Wednesday. “I can’t think of nobody who was better qualified to do this,” he said, noting Harris’ past experience as the attorney general of California, a border state.
“When she speaks, she speaks for me, doesn’t have to check with me,” added Biden. “She knows what she’s doing.”
The president told Harris, a former U.S. senator and daughter of immigrants, “I gave you a tough job, and you’re smiling.”
Harris, alongside the president, noted “the work will not be easy,” calling the influx at the U.S. border with Mexico “a challenging situation.”
The vice president said she looked forward to engaging in diplomacy with government leaders and the private sector of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as well as collaborating with Mexico and other countries in the hemisphere.
“While we are clear that people should not come to the border now, we also understand that we will enforce the law. And also, because we can chew gum and walk at the same time, we must address the root causes that cause people to make the trek,” Harris said.
Biden and Harris declined to answer any questions from a group of reporters who were brought into the White House State Dining Room for the announcement, which came as the president was meeting with immigration advisers and top Cabinet officials. They are trying to figure out how to cope with the surge of mostly Central American migrants crossing the border.
The appointment of Harris to the new role is being welcomed by one organization advancing a pro-immigrant congressional agenda.
“She understands that a mother does not send her child thousands of miles away lightly, but it is a painful decision driven by terrible circumstances such as violence and natural disasters,” said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of The Immigration Hub.
The White House has been facing increasing pressure in recent days from Republican critics and congressional Democrats to respond to the stream of Central American migrants walking hundreds of kilometers north through Mexico.
When he took office two months ago, Biden blocked further construction of the border wall championed by former President Donald Trump and embraced what he said would be more humane treatment of migrants.
Biden has told migrants to not make the treacherous trek, but many migrants have viewed his policy shift as an invitation to make the journey on the assumption that if they make it past the U.S.-Mexico border, they will be allowed to stay.
The U.S. policy currently is to expel single adults and families back to Mexico, but to care for the more than 500 unaccompanied children arriving daily. After processing them at crowded facilities, they are being sent to be with relatives already living in the United States or placed with vetted people who have agreed to care for them.
On Wednesday, Biden dispatched White House officials to accompany a congressional delegation to a refugee resettlement center in Carrizo Springs, Texas, allowing limited media coverage of the visit.
When asked by a reporter earlier Wednesday about allowing reporters access to the places where children are being held, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is “committed to transparency, and we’ll continue to work with agencies on creating avenues for media access to and visibility into these facilities.”
The Biden administration has so far refused to let news reporters into the migrant holding centers. Photos taken by Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, at one facility last weekend showed crowded conditions and children sleeping on the floor on thin cushions with only a thin blanket covering them.
Trump drew sharp criticism over similar scenes. He responded by ordering children sent back to Mexico rather than allowing them to stay in the United States.
Biden on Wednesday partly blamed some of the migration on the Trump administration, saying it had eliminated $700 million in funding to try to deal with the problem in the three Central American countries — money Biden is reinstating.
Trump dismantled an asylum system under which migrants petitioned to enter the United States and stay permanently.
Stephen Miller, an architect of Trump’s tough immigration policies, said on Twitter that the current influx is due to a failure of the Biden White House.
“The entire crisis is caused by a refusal to repatriate,” the former White House senior adviser said.
The migrant children are arriving in the United States in such large numbers that they often are being housed at border holding centers longer than the 72 hours allowed under U.S. law before they are turned over to Health and Human Services officials for eventual reunification with relatives or being sent to other caregivers.
The government has turned to convention centers in Texas to house some of the unaccompanied children. On Tuesday, some were sheltered at military bases in Texas.
While Biden declined to respond Wednesday to reporters’ queries about the issue, he is certain to be compelled to respond to such questions on Thursday when he holds his first formal news conference as president.
VOA’s Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report from the White House.