Republicans have seized on the absence of Harris and President Joe Biden from the border to paint the administration as weak on border security, seeking to revive a potent political weapon against Democrats in time for the 2022 midterm elections. With former President Donald Trump visiting the area less than a week after Harris, Republicans will watch the vice president’s visit closely for fodder for further attacks.
While various administration officials have made multiple visits to the border, the absence of Biden and Harris has left some Democrats worried that damage already has been done.
“The administration is making Democrats look weak,” said Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’ve heard, from Democrats and Republicans in my area, what the heck is going on with this administration?”
Cuellar’s district spans from south of San Antonio to the U.S.-Mexico border, and last year he won reelection by the slimmest margin of his nearly two-decade career. While he says he’s not worried about his own reelection fight, he adds, “I worry about my colleagues.”
Cuellar’s comments reflect a broader concern among some Democrats and immigration activists that the Biden administration has ceded the border security debate to Republicans.
Biden's first few months in office have seen record numbers of migrants attempting to cross the border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded more than 180,000 encounters on the Mexican border in May, the most since March 2000. Those numbers were boosted by a coronavirus pandemic-related ban on seeking asylum, which encouraged repeated attempts to cross the border because getting caught carried no legal consequences.
Republicans have seized on those figures to attack Biden and Harris as weak on border security, a message the GOP used with success during the 2020 campaign.
Administration officials, including Harris, have sought to push back against that perception, with Harris repeatedly sending the message to migrants during her recent visit to Guatemala: "Do not come."
But those comments drew fire from some progressives, most notably New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who called the message “disappointing.”
It was an incident that underscored the political no-win situation Harris finds herself in, taking on an intractable problem that’s bedeviled past administrations and been used by both parties to drive wedges and turnout during campaign season. If Biden chooses not to run for a second term, Harris will be seen as the leading contender to replace him, and the immigration issue could become either a chance for her to showcase her accomplishments or an albatross.