U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris wrapped up her first trip to the U.S. southern border on Friday, saying the Biden administration had "made progress" in addressing the record number of migrants who have reached the border in recent months.
The migration surge under U.S. President Joe Biden has cast a spotlight on the plight of Central Americans who face dangerous conditions and human traffickers as they travel to the United States. The situation has drawn criticism from both Republicans and some Democrats.
During her trip, Harris appeared to cast at least some of the blame for the border problems on the previous administration, telling faith-based leaders, shelter operators and legal service providers in El Paso, Texas, "We inherited a tough situation."
"In five months, we've made progress, but there's still more work to be done. But we've made progress," she said.
The vice president's trip is part of the Biden administration's effort to curb the surge in migrants attempting to enter the United States, with increased attention to the root causes of migration from Central America.
"The stories that I heard today reinforce the nature of those root causes," Harris said, adding, "It is going to require, as we have been doing, a comprehensive approach that acknowledges each piece of this."
During her visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, Harris made an unannounced visit to the Paso del Norte port of entry, where she toured a processing area for migrants, including an area for unaccompanied children. She spoke with a border patrol agent who told her conditions have improved at the facility in the past two years.
The vice president was accompanied by Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas, whom she commended for "doing a great job."
Prior to visiting the border, Harris made a stop at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility and met with Representative Veronica Escobar in El Paso.
"I'm glad to be here. It was always the plan to come here, and I think we're going to have a good productive day," she said after arriving in El Paso.
While at the CBP facility, the vice president reportedly met with five young migrant girls.
Harris visited Guatemala and Mexico earlier this month, pointedly telling migrants, "Do not come" to the U.S.
But thousands of migrants from those two countries, along with those from Honduras and El Salvador, have been making the long trek to the border, many on foot, escaping poverty and crime in their homelands, they say.
U.S. border agents are facing the biggest number of undocumented migrants in two decades. They caught more than 180,000 at the border in May, mostly single adults. The figure was up slightly from the 170,000-plus numbers in both March and April.
Most of the migrants are coming from Latin America, but many also are from Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and some African nations.
The surge has grown since President Joe Biden and Harris took office in January, with Biden saying he was adopting what he called a more humane stance on migration than that of the Trump administration. Biden picked Harris to oversee efforts to curb the migration by addressing the root causes in Latin America of people leaving their homelands.
Biden has ended construction of former President Donald Trump's border wall, and unlike his predecessor, who expelled the migrants to their home countries, he is allowing unaccompanied children to enter the U.S. But like Trump, Biden is refusing to allow families and single adults to enter.
CBP said the average daily number of children in its custody had dropped to 640. Another 16,200 migrant children are being held by U.S. health authorities while the government attempts to place them with relatives already living in the U.S. or with vetted caregivers willing to take them into their homes.
Republicans have blamed Biden for the border surge. Before meeting with Harris in early June, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei also told CBS News that when Biden took office, "the very next day, the coyotes were here organizing groups of children to take them to the United States."
Harris faced frequent questions on her foreign trip about why she had not visited the border. Frustrated at the questions, she told NBC News she also had not visited Europe since taking office.
Opposition Republicans have criticized her not visiting crowded migrant holding facilities at the border, at one point posting an image of a milk carton with her picture that was captioned "Missing at the border."
After the Harris trip was announced, Trump, who is weighing another run for the presidency in 2024, said in a statement, "After months of ignoring the crisis at the Southern Border, it is great that we got Kamala Harris to finally go and see the tremendous destruction and death that they've created—a direct result of Biden ending my very tough but fair border policies."
Trump said that if he and Texas Governor Greg Abbott were not planning to visit the border themselves next week, "she would have never gone!"