Just before Biden took office, record numbers of lone migrant children from Central America began arriving in Texas and other border states. Many of them are seeking asylum, which has been drastically curtailed in previous years.
The rise of child migrants stretched the ability to safely detain and shelter them, especially since the Trump administration had dismantled much of that infrastructure. This led to reports of overcrowding and squalid conditions.
That situation has left a “big blemish” on an otherwise successful first few months in office for the Biden administration, said Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at UC Irvine.
Eleanor Acer, refugee protection director at Human Rights First, called the administration’s messaging a misstep that comes off as hypocritical.
“When the U.S. is out there encouraging other countries to uphold their commitments to refugees but sending a strong signal that it’ll continue to violate its own international refugee law obligations — it undermines the country’s credibility,” she said.
Harris’ visit to Guatemala as her first foreign trip as vice president underscored the new administration’s stated intention of dealing with the “root causes” of immigration, including social and ethnic inequality and bloodshed stemming from decades of warfare and gang rivalries.
Speaking at Monday’s news conference after meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, Harris struck an empathetic note in citing natural disasters and hunger as “acute” factors driving immigration.
But she said she wanted “to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border. Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.”
Taking a different diplomatic tack, Harris said the U.S. would send 500,000 COVID-19 vaccines to Guatemala and provide $26 million to fight the pandemic there.
Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action, a progressive group based in Washington that advocates for immigrants, said Harris had turned her back on her promises to immigrants. She was disappointed in Harris, the daughter of immigrants, and a champion of immigration reform as a California senator.