US President Joe Biden has named Vice President Kamala Harris to lead his administration’s efforts, along with Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle countries, to try to stem the flow of immigration to the United States.
Biden announced the move at a White House meeting with his immigration team on Wednesday.
“I can think of nobody who is better qualified to do this,” Biden said.
“When she speaks, she speaks for me. She doesn’t have to check with me,” he said.
The Biden administration has faced mounting criticism over the arrival of large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers at the US border with Mexico in recent weeks.
In particular, increasing numbers of unaccompanied children, many of whom have been stuck in jail-like border stations for days while they await placement in overwhelmed government-run shelters, have drawn concern from immigration advocates.
Al Jazeera’s Manuel Rapalo, reporting from Tijuana, Mexico, on Wednesday, said approximately 1,000 to 1,500 people have been waiting in a makeshift camp just outside El Chaparral border crossing, hoping to be allowed into the US.
The camp was set up about one month ago, Rapalo said, and many of the families fled their homes in Central America and southern Mexico due to threats of violence and recent natural disasters.
Rapalo reported that many people living in the camp said they had not received instructions from Mexican or US authorities about what to do next, fuelling a sense of confusion, and “there is a sense of growing desperation among a lot of the people”.
“They’ve been waiting, some for over a month – they just don’t know what they’re waiting for. Many are hoping that US officials will see this migrant camp … and give them a chance to plead their asylum cases to US authorities,” he said.
“Migrants here [are] really at the mercy of the elements; extreme heat during the day, extreme cold during the night, the persistent rains that have been hitting Tijuana over the last couple of days.”
tune into @AJEnglish at 22GMT – I’ll be live from Tijuana to talk about the conditions at this makeshift migrant camp. Many here have been waiting for more than 1 month, hoping U.S. officials will see them and grant them asylum on the other side of the border. pic.twitter.com/KYgSFAFAyp
— Manuel Rapalo (@Manuel_Rapalo) March 24, 2021
Biden has faced stiff criticism from Republicans, who have blamed the US president for the increase in arrivals.
“It is a crisis that was created by the Biden administration, by their own policies,” Senator Ted Cruz told reporters at the US Capitol on Wednesday.
Cruz said he would be part of a group of 18 Senate Republicans visiting a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility on Friday in Texas, where migrant children are being held in overflow detention cells.
Cruz and other Republican senators say that by dismantling former President Donald Trump’s tough border policies, the Biden administration has given new incentives to thousands of migrants trying to get into the US.
Biden administration officials, however, have blamed Trump for dismantling the US immigration system. The former president pursued hardline, anti-immigration policies that were widely criticised by migration advocates and rights groups.
Harris said on Wednesday that, “There is no question that this is a challenging situation.”
“While we are clear that people should not come to the border now, we also understand that we will enforce the law,” she said. “Because we can chew gum and walk at the same time, let’s address the root causes that cause people to make the trek.”
Also on Wednesday, Biden said the US would invest $700m into a development plan for the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador as part of an effort to tackle the root causes of migration.
“The reason why so many people were leaving, we learned was not only gang violence and trafficking and cartel, but natural disasters, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes,” he said.
Biden said the US is going to need help from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries, and that Harris “agreed to lead our diplomatic efforts and work with those countries”.
El Salvador President Nayib Bukele criticised the US focus on Northern Triangle countries in a tweet on Wednesday.
Bukele retweeted a chart with data indicating a significant decrease in the amount of unaccompanied children from El Salvador taken into custody by CBP since 2020, compared with previous years.
“If the United States wants to seriously address immigration at the southern border, they should really drop the ‘Northern Triangle’ concept,” Bukele tweeted. “A recycled plan that did not work in 2014 will not work now.”