When Joe Biden tapped Kamala Harris to help resolve some of the roots of the current migrant crisis, he was placing her squarely on the third rail of modern national politics.
The question of what to do about the flow of migrants overwhelming border resources have vexed the past two presidents. And some people close to Harris fear it would now do the same for her and, in turn, complicate her political future.
For allies, the enormity of the task did not go unnoticed, nor were they pollyannaish about the risks and how it might play out. But immigration advocates and other confidantes in the Harris orbit are hopeful that she could bring a unique perspective and experience to her first major policy role as veep. And combined with historical patterns of migration, they believe that may end up positioning her nicely as the one that effectively dealt with an issue that has been largely intractable.
“The problem cannot be solved by one person or in four or eight years, as has been proved by the litany of past failures by people of good will and talent,” a person close to the vice president who is unauthorized to speak to the press said. “But that’s not bad for her necessarily because any improvement over the status quo should be a win.”
Harris’ exact role hasn’t been fully laid out publicly. Though senior administration officials keep hammering home that Harris isn’t in charge of the administration’s overall immigration agenda or activity at the border, Symone Sanders, Harris’ senior advisor and chief spokesperson, told reporters Friday that the vice president received an “extensive briefing on the northern triangle and Latin America” and would be “speaking with leaders from the region in the near future.”
Sergio Gonzales, a former senior policy adviser to Harris on immigration and homeland security, points to how Harris maneuvered in 2017, just weeks after President Donald Trump had rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, as an example of the type of tact she will bring to the issue. Between heavy policy focused meetings with staff and immigration advocates, then-Senator Harris gave her staff a mandate to set up drinks and snacks at her Hart senate office building for the DREAMERs, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children that were protected under DACA, that had come to Capitol Hill.
It was, in part, an effort to show her support for the young people at the heart of the policy tug-of-war.
“She’s going to be highly engaged and be involved in the detail. And she’s going to be thinking about this from a human-centered point of view,” said Gonzales.
The DREAM Act, of which Harris was one of ten cosponsors in 2017, never passed the Senate. Former aides said that the issue remains a top priority for her nonetheless. Critics say, there were times in the past where she was too tough on immigrant communities while holding office in California — the state with the largest immigrant population in the country. But former aides say her record in the state shows that she has a strong skill set to handle the issue now.
As attorney general, Harris helped coordinate immigration lawyers for families in need of assistance, particularly children, traveled to the border multiple times to meet with local officials and created a task force targeting transnational gangs. At the time, Harris said: “Violent gangs don’t respect borders any more than they respect the law. My office is committed to doing whatever it takes to protect the citizens of California from gang violence and drug-running.”
She’s also received blowback from her time as the district attorney of San Francisco for supporting a policy to turn over underage undocumented immigrants to authorities if they were accused of having committed a felony. Her presidential campaign told CNN that that “policy was intended to protect the sanctuary status of San Francisco.” But they also acknowledged that the “policy could have been applied more fairly.”
In her 2016 Senate race, where she squared off against Loretta Sanchez, a Latina congresswoman, Harris handed down a directive to her staff: Make sure I win with Latino voters. And, in most parts of the state, she did. After her victory, Harris’ first appearance before the press was with a large number of immigration activists calling on reforms.
When she began setting up her Senate office, the first committee she joined was the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, one of several overseeing immigration policy. But, as a newly-elected senator in the minority party without long-standing Hill relationships, she had few levers to pull. As has been the case with immigration policy the past few decades, the reforms she talked about with activists by her side on election night never came.
“When you’re the junior most person on the committee, the questions that you ask must be the ones that no one else [asked] before you. So she put in a lot of work preparing for those oversight and those confirmation hearings,” a former senior Senate aide told POLITICO.
Harris’ contributions on the immigration front have been largely political rather than legislative. She went viral for her prosecutorial questioning of Trump’s appointees to head the department: retired Gen. John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen. She also called for the resignation of Nielsen for the administration’s family separation policy.
She positioned herself as a voice for advocates during her brief time — her first speech on the Senate floor was to blast Trump on immigration. Harris would head home with huge binders of stats and data on the immigration system, scribble notes in the margins asking for more info and then come back to aides for what has been described as intense preparation sessions that staff called “the hot bench.”
“You knew that if you were going to do briefing time, you best be completely prepared. That meant having all the facts straight, thinking through different lines of a question,” Gonzales said. “Knowing that she would really want to dig in” and anticipating that it could happen for any line of inquiry.
Harris also quickly introduced legislation to get detained migrants access to attorneys and — notably, given the current climate — introduced legislation to stop the construction of detention centers.
After that initial flurry of activity, she worked on other immigration-related bills and later took heat from some members of her own party for refusing to support a deal — backed by her own party leadership — that would have exchanged $25 billion in spending on Trump’s border wall in exchange for something she really wanted: a path to citizenship for DREAMERs. Explaining the move, she said while she supports “border security,” she was not going to “vote for a wall under any circumstances.”
The deal died before it could get introduced, with each camp blaming the other.
The next iteration of Harris’ immigration portfolio is the same role her boss had toward the end of the Obama presidency. As Vice President in 2015, Biden was handed responsibility for a program that injected $1 billion into Central America, with hopes of helping alleviate the flow of migrants through Mexico to the southern U.S. border. There were few strings attached to the money and because of corruption in the region, the situation has only worsened. Six years later, that experience is on the Biden administration’s mind as they once more look to solve root causes of the problem.
“Both the president and all of us who worked with him on that — for him on that — learned a great deal,” Roberta Jacobson, special assistant to the president and coordinator for the Southern Border told reporters on March 10. “If we realize that it’s lack of good governance, economic opportunity and security issues or violence, then some of those require commitments by the governments on anti-corruption and transparency.”
Jacobson added that the administration will be pressing for more commitments from leaders and working to ensure “that funds get to the communities that are really in need.”
Harris’ allies say those lessons will be key to her success. They argue that, counterintuitively, the intractableness of this issue actually creates a space where any movement in the right direction can be sold as a win for Harris and the administration. Jess Morales Rocketto, the executive director of Care in Action, who worked with Harris on drafting the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights legislation, says she has no doubt Harris’ role with the Northern Triangle countries will be difficult but believes something can be done because it’s an issue Harris cares about.
“I would say she was one of our earliest and biggest champions on the issue, using our messaging,” Rocketto said. “A lot of people are afraid of immigration, and she just so wholly embraced it. And over time, when everyone found out she was the VP pick, it was like that’s amazing and also like ‘s—, we’re going to lose our immigration champion in Congress.’”
While Harris may have the backing of the advocacy community, Republicans have already begun attacking her for the problems at the border, including children being held in facilities built for adults.
In a press conference after 18 GOP Senators went to the border last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tied all of the issues to Harris, including those outside her portfolio. “This is your job to fix,” he said. “I promise you I will work with you, but you cannot possibly understand your job unless you come here.”
For Harris, who is expected to run for president again in the future, the risk of being blamed for an immigration quagmire years in the making is very real. But allies who talked to POLITICO say that being underestimated has always been a big contributor to Harris’ success.
“I’m sure in some ways she loves the fact that the people are saying this is a difficult dive,” said one former Senate aide.
Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.