Biden Names Harris to Work With Central America on Migration

The president gave the vice president a prominent role in the politically charged issue at a time when thousands of children are being detained in facilities along the border.

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Michael D. Shear and Eileen Sullivan

WASHINGTON — President Biden said on Wednesday that Vice President Kamala Harris would lead the administration’s efforts to deter migration to the southwestern border by working to improve conditions in Central America, plunging her into one of the most politically fraught issues facing the White House.

The president said he had directed Ms. Harris to oversee the administration’s plans to pump billions of dollars into the ravaged economies of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. She will work with the leaders of Central American governments to bolster the region’s economy in the hopes of reducing the violence and poverty that often drive families in those countries to seek refuge in the United States.

“While we are clear that people should not come to the border now, we also understand that we will enforce the law,” Ms. Harris said before a White House meeting with top immigration officials. “We also — because we can chew gum and walk at the same time — must address the root causes that cause people to make the trek.”

The announcement underscores the sense of urgency at the border, where the administration has struggled to move thousands of young migrants from detention centers meant for adults into shelters managed by the Department of Health and Human Services. Republicans, who have seized on the images to make a case that Mr. Biden’s immigration agenda is only attracting more people from the region, have vowed to put the issue at the center of their efforts to retake power in Congress next year.

Mr. Biden, however, has continued to use a pandemic emergency rule to rapidly turn away most migrants at the border. Even though an appeals court allowed the United States to resume expelling minors, Mr. Biden has elected to welcome them into the country, where they must be kept in custody until they can be released to sponsors.

For Ms. Harris, the diplomatic assignment is likely to be challenging. Previous efforts, including one led by Mr. Biden when he was vice president, were largely unsuccessful, as critics charged that corrupt leaders there had not effectively spent foreign aid money. In the years since, a majority of the families crossing the border have traveled from Central America, seeking economic opportunity, safety from gangs and reunions with family members already in the United States.

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