EL PASO, Texas -- Vice President Kamala Harris visited El Paso on Friday to tour the Borderland, following dogged GOP criticism for not having visited the U.S.-Mexico border, and lamented political "infighting" over immigration.
"I'm glad to be here. It was always the plan to come here. And I think we're going to have a good and productive day," Harris said upon her arrival in El Paso.
Harris said the day would "be about as much as anything addressing the effects of what I've already been addressing," which is the root causes of migration from Central America. She said she came to El Paso to talk about "what has brought people to the U.S. border."
During the visit, the vice president did a walking tour of the El Paso central processing center, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility at Hondo Pass, and attended an operational briefing with agents.
Afterwards, Harris said they had made "incredible advances" in a short time when it came to processing the flow of people, and congratulated them on the effort.
While inside the CBP facility, the vice president met with five young Central American migrant girls, ranging in ages from 9 to 16. The children drew pictures for Harris and an aide said, "they told her what they wanted to be when they grow up."
Outside of the border facility, pro-Trump demonstrators held signs that read: “Kamala do you hear their screams?” and “Kamala, you know Trump won.”
From there, a motorcade took the vice president to the Paso del Norte Port of Entry, with a CBP agent proclaiming to the media that Harris was officially at the border.
It's one of the country’s busiest pedestrian border crossings, with thousands of people traveling across at the Paso Del Norte International Bridge each day.
On the stop, Harris toured an area for screening of asylum applicants as they enter from Mexico, viewed a secondary processing area for migrants, and saw an outdoor vehicle inspection area used to screen vehicles crossing the border for illegal goods or activities.
Harris also held what she said was a "candid" conversation with advocates from faith-based organizations and shelter and legal service providers for migrants, where she heard what they view as the reasons migrants arrive.
"I approach our work with two principles: one that most people do not want to leave home," she told the group, adding that when they do it is because "they are fleeing some type of harm" or because staying means they cannot satisfy the basic needs of their family.
Her second principle was the capacity to give people "hope." She said it was important to her and the president to not only maintain access, but also provide a role for the leaders at the roundtable to participate.
During that meeting, Harris said she and Biden “inherited a tough situation." But she maintained that “in five months we’ve made progress... there’s still more work to be done, but we’ve made progress.”
Participants told ABC-7 that the meeting was productive.
"She came here and she sat down and I have to really give her credit for being able to listen. She didn't dominate the conversation in anyway, she reacted, she did share her thoughts - but she also listened,” said El Paso Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz.
"I'm very glad she came and we had the opportunity to talk to her," added Fernando Garcia from the Border Network for Human Rights.
At the conclusion of her trip, Harris took questions from the press before departing El Paso International Airport on her way to California for the weekend. (You can watch that entire news conference in the video player below.)
Harris called for an end to political “rhetoric” and “infighting” over immigration, an issue that Republicans have been eager to weaponize against her.
Immigration “cannot be reduced to a political issue,” Harris told reporters. “We’re talking about children, we’re talking about families, we’re talking about suffering. And our approach has to be thoughtful and effective.”
Harris was accompanied on her El Paso visit by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin and El Paso Congresswoman Veronica Escobar.
Both Mayorkas and Escobar said they invited Harris specifically to the area. Mayorkas told reporters Friday that he recommended Harris visit El Paso because it is one of the busiest sectors across the border.
He was also quick to emphasize that border security is in his portfolio, not the vice president’s.
"My responsibilities as secretary of homeland security are to address security management of our border," Mayorkas said. "As everyone knows, we faced significant challenges back in March, we've made extraordinary progress. I look forward to sharing with the vice president the progress we've made."
Harris noted that El Paso was the site of the "launch" of the Trump administration's child separation program and “we have seen the disaster that resulted from that here in El Paso.” She praised Mayorkas for helping to expedite family reunification.
The visit to El Paso came amid a smattering of criticism that's followed Harris since being tasked by President Joe Biden with leading diplomatic efforts in Central America to address immigration.
Republicans faulted Harris for an El Paso trip that they dismissed as little more than a photo session. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a conservative Republican and leading administration critic on immigration, charged that Biden’s policies “opened the floodgates to human smugglers and drug cartels.”
While Cruz said he was glad Harris had visited, “if the vice president came to Texas without a concrete plan to secure our border and is unwilling to reverse her administration’s failed immigration policies that caused the crisis, then her visit is nothing short of a glorified photo-op.”
Harris's visit to the border in El Paso came after a rocky first foreign trip earlier this month -- her two-day swing through Mexico and Guatelmala -- with sources saying at the time that the trip left some officials perplexed about her bumpy answers to questions about whether she would go to the border.
"At some point, you know, we are going to the border," Harris had said in an interview with NBC News while on the Central America trip. "We've been to the border. So this whole, this whole, this whole thing about the border. We've been to the border. We've been to the border."
But when pressed on the fact that she still had not visited the border, Harris responded, "... and I haven't been to Europe. And I mean, I don't -- I don't understand the point that you're making," Harris said with a laugh, adding, "I'm not discounting the importance of the border."
That answer only intensified GOP criticism of her absence at the border.
When asked if the border trip was essentially the administration bowing down to pressure from Republicans, Harris' chief spokesperson, Symone Sanders, told reporters on a call Thursday evening that "this administration does not take their cues from Republican criticism, nor from the former President of the United States of America."
"We have said over a number of different occasions... that she would go to the border. She has been before, she would go again. She would go when it was appropriate, when it made sense. And this trip tomorrow, this timing, is what made sense for the vice president's schedule, but also, for our partners on the ground," Sanders added.
Sanders called the visit part of a "cause and effect" strategy, labeling Harris' efforts in Guatemala and Mexico as addressing the cause and her visit to the border in El Paso as addressing the effect. That's despite months of countering from aides both publicly and privately that Harris' focus is not the border.
Officials said the trip was meant to draw a contrast with the Trump administration's immigration and border policies, with Sanders calling El Paso the "birthplace" of the Trump administration's family separation policy, pointing to his 2017 pilot program.
Escobar, as she accompanied Harris on Friday, said El Paso was the right place to visit because it has borne much of the impact of an increase in migration to the U.S. in recent years. During the Trump administration, the city dealt with hundreds of migrant children who were separated from their parents while trying to enter the country and had to erect emergency shelters to house migrants.
“I and other advocates have long said El Paso is the new Ellis Island,” Escobar said. “We have been greeting asylum seekers and refugees at our nation’s front door for a very long time.”
A record number of unaccompanied children crossed into the U.S. this spring, further intensifying GOP criticism of the Biden administration's handling. CBP encountered more than 180,000 migrants at the southern border in May, putting the U.S. on track to surpass the number of border crossings in fiscal year 2019.
While in El Paso, Harris did not visit nearby Fort Bliss, where migrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone are still spending prolonged time in temporary government facilities, raising concerns among attorneys, who say the conditions are inadequate for kids.
Tyler Moran, special assistant to the president for immigration for the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, noted with reporters that improvements have been made at the facility, including the addition of 50 mental health professionals on site and increases to case management services.
"The administration is concerned by these reports and we do know that HHS has taken steps to address them. We are taking this very seriously. This is serious for the President and the vice president. And we know it's important to HHS to get to the bottom of this and ensure that the highest standards are being upheld," Sanders added.
One of those migrant groups that Harris met with on Friday, the Border Network for Human Rights, has called for the immediate closure of the Fort Bliss emergency shelter. The group has also called for the Biden administration to end Title 42, a public health rule invoked during the Trump presidency that allows immigration agents to turn away migrants seeking to enter the country during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mayorkas said during the trip that a decision will be made based on data being reviewed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Escobar said presidential action on immigration is important, but added that Congress must play its part by creating pathways to citizenship and asylum for immigrants who seek them.
“My Republican colleagues are more interested in walls and criticism of our vice president than about real meaningful solutions,” she said.
Asked about Harris' trip to El Paso, Biden had said on Thursday said that Harris has "done a great job so far."
"(T)he reason why it's important that she go down, she's now set up the criteria, having spoken with the president of Mexico and Guatemala, visited the region, to know what we need to do," Biden told reporters in the White House East Room.