While attention is focused on Joe Biden’s first presidential visit overseas as he continues his week-long trip to Europe, US vice-president Kamala Harris also had her first foray into foreign affairs this week.
But for Harris, the excursion may have presented the first real hiccup of her tenure.
The vice-president’s two-day trip to Guatemala and Mexico was never going to be an easy one. While Biden is in Europe to restore frayed transatlantic ties with relieved allies following Donald Trump’s tenure, Harris was dispatched to Latin America to deal with a political hot potato – immigration.
Biden charged his deputy with dealing with the immigration issue in March following a surge of migrants trying to cross the southwestern border with Mexico.
From the outset Harris and her staff were keen to emphasise that the task was to deal with the root cause of migration – not the situation at the border itself – as she batted away persistent questions about when she planned to visit the border. Harris has led several virtual meetings with central American leaders in recent weeks, laying the ground for her in-person visit.
The trip to Guatemala and Mexico had all the trappings of a high-level political mission: bilateral meetings with leaders and roundtable discussions with local groups and female entrepreneurs. But it was her message to people planning to move to the US that emerged as the key takeaway.
“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 following a meeting with Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei. “Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.”
Her tough words raised eyebrows – encapsulating the Biden administration’s muddy messaging on immigration. Having promised a more humane approach to immigration during the presidential campaign, the Biden-Harris team have taken a more robust approach to immigration policy as they feel the heat from the right about rising migrant numbers.
Harris’s comments served to alienate many within the Democratic Party. “Disappointing to see,” wrote Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. “First, seeking asylum at any US border is a 100 per cent legal method of arrival. Second, the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”
A tetchy interview with MSNBC’s Lester Holt added to Harris’s troubles. When Holt asked her why she hadn’t visited the border, a clearly frustrated Harris responded: “And I haven’t been to Europe. I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making,” noting that she had visited both Europe and the border before becoming vice-president.
But unfortunately for Harris the drumbeat of questions calling for her to visit the border is not likely to go away, despite aides stressing that her policy focus is on the “northern triangle” countries of central America. Harris is expected to visit the US-Mexico border at some point in the coming months.
Fox News and right-wing media have been relentlessly playing clips of the Holt interview this week, and have successfully managed to tie Harris to the immigration issue – a key concern for Republican voters.
“Kamala Harris has gone 79 days without visit to border since being tapped for crisis role,” said one headline.
Harris’s association with a complex and politically fraught issue such as immigration could be damaging if she is considering any future run for president.
The president has also assigned her a second tricky portfolio – voting rights. During his speech to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre this month, Biden announced that Harris would be taking the lead on the issue. A voting rights Bill that would counter Republican efforts to restrict voting in many states is making its way through Congress, but already Democrat Joe Manchin has said he will not support the measure.
Though Harris’s team has signalled that the vice-president wanted the role, the chances of securing agreement in Congress on electoral protection measures are slim. As with the immigration portfolio, delivering results will be tricky, even if the issue will galvanise the Democratic base.
For Harris it could be a challenging few months.