VP Kamala Harris touts successes as 'border czar' as she returns to immigration beat with overseas investments

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Vice President Harris this week returned to focusing on targeting what the administration believes are the “root causes” of the migrant crisis at the southern border, announcing $1 billion in additional funding and a new initiative to direct money to Central America.

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Harris’ office announced on Monday that an extra $950 million in private sector commitments has been raised from companies, including Nestle and Target, bringing the total amount of Harris’ “Call to Action” launched in 2021 to $4.2 billion.

“The investments that we have made thus far are on track to meet goals set out by the Partnership for Central America, which include the creation of 1 million new jobs by 2032 and the inclusion of 6 million people in the formal financial system by 2027,” Harris said at a roundtable at the White House.

In 2021, Harris was put in charge of leading diplomatic talks to tackle “root causes” like poverty, violence, corruption, and climate change which the administration believes are driving the migrant crisis. Republicans ultimately dubbed her the “border czar,” a title the White House has rejected.






© AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Vice President Kamala Harris announced nearly $1 billion in new funding to target “root causes” at the southern border this week. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

The task has proved a politically tricky assignment for Harris at a time when migrant numbers at the southern border were skyrocketing. They have stayed at record number since, with over 1.7 million encounters in FY 21, more than 2.3 million encounters in FY 22 and so far every month of FY23 outpacing the prior year.

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Harris was initially hammered for failing to visit the border. She eventually did so in the summer of 2021, but has not returned. She has intermittently held events related to migration, but has continued to be dogged by questions about what work she is doing related to the beat and how effective that work has been.

“If you were given a job 2 years ago with the explicit goal of reducing illegal immigration, and then you sit around and do nothing while illegal immigration explodes to levels never seen before, you should be fired and replaced,” the National Border Patrol Council said last month. “Period.”

But Harris has attempted to counteract that her strategy is a long-term one that needs time to develop. Aides have also emphasized that the beat is migration causes, not border security.

At the core of this push is the public-private partnership known as the Call to Action. The funding is targeted to aim at specific goals: a reform agenda; digital and financial inclusion; food security and climate-smart agriculture; climate adaptation and clean energy; education and workforce development; and public health access; strengthening democratic governance, combating corruption, and improving security.

Despite the historic border numbers overwhelming the U.S. southern border, Harris has sought to claim that the measures are working.

“These investments have created jobs. These investments have increased access to the financial system, including to the Internet. These investments have allowed small businesses which have the potential not only in the United States but around the world, and in particular in this region, have the potential to really thrive if they have access to financing,” she said.

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She also linked the effort to a decline in migration from Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

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“Our root causes strategy and these investments represent a long term development effort, but we are already beginning to see positive trends,” she said on Monday.

The administration also announced that it would not only be continuing with the program but expanding it. The “Central America Forward” program was announced by Harris as a “new phase” of the partnership that will add good governance and labor rights as priorities into the partnership.

It will also include additional government commitments to support investments in the region, with Harris touting a program to identify clean energy projects as well as workforce development programs. Additionally private sector partners are committing to goals to combat corruption and protect labor rights — known as the “Good Governance, Good Jobs” declaration.

The administration has been attempting to show that it is turning the corner on the crisis, particularly with the announcement this week of new border numbers, which officials say show that new border measures are working.

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Those numbers for January show that there were approximately 156,000 migrant encounters in January. While still the highest January on record, it is a sharp drop from the 251,000 encountered in December — and officials said the number of migrants caught by Border Patrol crossing illegally is the lowest since Feb. 2021.

Officials have linked the drop to a new parole program for 30,000 migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba, combined with expanded Title 42 expulsions for those nationalities.

But the administration has also been attempting to put the blame on Congress for failing to pass an immigration reform bill with extra border funding. So far, Republicans have balked at the inclusion of a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants included in the White House’s framework.

“Ultimately, we need Congress to pass legislation that both enhances border security but fixes our broken immigration system. We are a nation of immigrants,” Harris said.

But Republican opposition is unlikely to slow down any time soon. Republicans have pledged to investigate the Biden administration’s handling of the crisis now they have taken control of the House. Meanwhile, multiple articles of impeachment against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have been introduced in the chamber.

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