Harris to lead diplomatic efforts to address immigration, Biden says

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Wednesday that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead diplomatic efforts with officials in three Central American countries to address immigration issues at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Biden announced the decision during a meeting at the White House with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and other immigration officials. He described the vice president as the most qualified person to lead the efforts, pointing to her previous work as attorney general of California.

“(She) has done a great deal upholding human rights, but also fighting organized crime in the process,” Biden said.

The president added that Harris won’t be solely responsible for addressing immigration issues.

“She’s leading the effort because I think the best thing to do is to put someone who, when he or she speaks, (people) don’t have to wonder about, ‘Is that where the president is?’” Biden said. “When she speaks, she speaks for me. (She) doesn’t have to check with me, she knows what she’s doing, and I hope we can move this along.”

Harris said she expects to collaborate with Mexican officials and others as part of the effort.

“I look forward to engaging in diplomacy with government, with private sector, with civil society and the leaders of each in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to strengthen democracy and the rule of law and ensure shared prosperity in the region,” she said.

Biden said Wednesday that people arriving at the southern border have been fueled not just by gang violence and trafficking cartels, but also by natural disasters.

“It’s not like someone sits around a hand-hewn table somewhere in Guatemala and says, ‘I got a great idea, let’s sell everything we have, give the money to a coyote, have them take our kids or us to the border of America, take us across, leave us in a desert, we don’t speak the language -- won’t that be fun?’” the president said. “One of the (things) we learned is that if you deal with the problems in-country, it benefits everyone. It benefits us, it benefits the people and it grows the economies there.”

Since Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, the U.S. has seen a dramatic spike in the number of people encountered by border officials. There were 18,945 family members and 9,297 unaccompanied children encountered in February — an increase of 168% and 63%, respectively, from the month before, according to the Pew Research Center. That creates an enormous logistical challenge because children, in particular, require higher standards of care and coordination across agencies.

Among the reasons for the increase are thousands of Central American migrants already stuck at the border for months, and the persistent scourge of gang violence afflicting Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Still, the number of encounters of both unaccompanied minors and families are fewer than they were at various points during the Trump administration, including in spring 2019.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.