Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that he is charging Kamala Harris with diplomatic efforts to stem migration at the US-Mexico border, amid a deepening humanitarian challenge there.
The vice-president will collaborate with officials from Mexico and Central America, according to Reuters, taking on similar responsibilities to Biden’s when he responded to an influx of children and families as vice-president under the Obama administration.
“Needless to say, the work will not be easy,” Harris said. “But it is important work.”
Both Biden and Harris were meeting with department heads and immigration advisers, after alarming images circulated earlier this week showing packed border holding cells, where young migrants rested on side-by-side floor mats and turned to mylar blankets for warmth.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered nearly 9,500 children who came to the country unaccompanied by a parent or guardian at the south-western border last month, and more than 15,000 are currently in federal custody – nearly doubling the previous record, according to the Washington Post.
The arrival of so many vulnerable people, coinciding with the coronavirus pandemic, has sent administrators scrambling for more space to safely accommodate those children, many of whom are stranded in inhospitable CBP facilities long after the legal time limit of 72 hours.
As Biden shared Harris’s new assignment, White House officials and lawmakers were touring a controversial shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas, under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the federal arm that cares for unaccompanied children until they can be released to parents or sponsors.
Following widespread criticism of the administration’s lack of transparency surrounding its border operations, HHS was allowing one network camera to join and document the tour, even as officials announced they were opening a second Carrizo Springs facility to hold an additional 500 migrant kids.
A Pentagon spokesperson said on Tuesday that it had also received a request from HHS to use an empty dormitory at joint base San Antonio and land at Fort Bliss – both in Texas – to host unaccompanied children, CNN reported.
As the urgent situation captures national attention, more politicians are expected to descend on the border later this week. The Democratic representative Joaquin Castro tweeted Monday that he would lead a delegation to Carrizo Springs on Friday, a move he called “oversight to ensure humane treatment and orderly process to unite kids with families”.
Texas’s two Republican senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, have also announced a visit to the state’s Rio Grande Valley on Friday.
Cornyn, an outspoken critic of the White House’s immigration policy, is currently under fire for seemingly lamenting that unlike former presidents, Biden “has instead emphasized the humane treatment of immigrants, regardless of their legal status”.