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Harris Tours El Paso Migrant Processing Center, Meets With Advocates In 1st Border Trip

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visits El Paso central processing center, near the border between the United States and Mexico in El Paso on June 25, 2021.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visits El Paso central processing center, near the border between the United States and Mexico in El Paso on June 25, 2021.

Vice President Kamala Harris got a first-hand look at conditions on the Texas-Mexico border during a visit to El Paso Friday, where she toured a migrant processing center and met with immigrant advocates. The trip also comes amid criticism from Republicans over the Biden administration’s handling of what they call a border “crisis.”

The vice president toured the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center, where she spoke with El Paso Border Patrol Chief Gloria Chavez and several other agents. She also met with five migrant girls ages 9-16.

Later, during a press briefing before a roundtable discussion with advocates, Harris said that the Biden administration “inherited a tough situation,” and noted that the pilot program for child separation under the Trump administration began in El Paso.

“Our administration, it is important to be clear, is working to build a fair and a functional and a humane immigration system,” Harris said. “We feel very strongly about that.”

The vice president was accompanied on the trip by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, along with U.S. Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Escobar said she's hopeful the Biden administration will help improve conditions on the border.

"I believe leaders like the vice president who understand the need for a multifaceted approach will help us achieve long-lasting change and strategic solutions," Escobar said.

The Border Patrol processing facility was built during a previous spike in migration from Central America during the Trump administration, when Border Patrol stations were overcrowded with families in holding cells not designed for parents with children.

Outside, a small group of Trump supporters waved flags as Harris departed for an international bridge downtown, one of five busy international border crossings in the El Paso area.

The visit to the Paso del Norte international bridge was not previously announced. At the bridge, the vice president met with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, toured an area for screening of asylum applicants as they enter from Mexico, viewed an area where unaccompanied children are temporarily held when they arrive at the border alone, and got a look at a secondary inspection area used to screen vehicles crossing the border for illegal goods.

El Paso resident Destiny Humphrey, 19, was at the Paso del Norte bridge where she plays her guitar for tips, and called conditions faced by the Central American migrants expelled daily at the bridge, “really sad.”

“People think once they’re here, they'll be able to cross,” Humphrey said. “They need the correct information and the correct legal process that it takes to come over here.”

TEXAS STANDARD | Harris' El Paso Visit An Opportunity For Biden Administration To Retool Asylum Policies

Harris, who has been tasked with developing a strategy for dealing with the root causes of migration, has faced criticism from Republicans in Congress and from Gov. Greg Abbott for not visiting the border sooner.

Abbott denounced Harris’ work in a statement released this week, calling her the administration’s “Border Czar.”

“Vice President Harris is ignoring the real problem areas along our southern border that are not protected by the border wall and are being overrun by the federal government’s ill-thought-out open border policies,” Abbott said.

The governor has taken a more hard-line approach to immigration in recent weeks, issuing a disaster declaration directed at the U.S.-Mexico border and ramping up a policy called “Operation Lone Star.” Under that policy, the state of Texas has provided more border security resources to what Abbott called “high threat areas.”

Abbott also announced that Texas would raise money to construct a wall along the border, a move roundly criticized by Democrats who say it’s both impractical and politically motivated.

Harris met with immigrant advocates and community organizations before departing, including the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, which called on the Biden administration to close the emergency shelter for teens at Fort Bliss and end Title 42, a pandemic health order issued during the Trump administration that’s continued under Biden in which most migrants arriving at the border are quickly expelled.

Federal officials have argued that Title 42 was intended to stop the spread of COVID-19, but immigration advocates like Garcia have argued it’s a violation of due process.

“For us, what is important now is that she comes and really, truly listens to border communities, to families, to key stakeholders,” Fernando Garcia, Border Network for Human Rights co-founder and director, said before the meeting.

Houston Public Media’s Paul DeBenedetto and the Texas Newsroom’s Becky Fogel contributed to this report.

Angela Kocherga | KTEP