Joe Biden has put vice-president Kamala Harris in charge of US efforts to stop the flow of migrants from Central America over the southern border, as the administration battles to contain the growing political crisis.
“I can think of nobody who is better qualified to do this,” Biden said, speaking from the White House as he met with top immigration officials, including Alejandro Mayorkas, who leads the department of homeland security, which oversees border security.
In recent months, the Biden administration has been struggling to contain and process the number of children attempting to cross the US-Mexico border, leaving the US scrambling to find adequate holding facilities.
The appointment will make Harris, a former US senator and attorney-general for California, the face of the Biden administration’s response to what has become one of the biggest political crises it has confronted so far.
Republicans have blamed the Biden administration for encouraging migrants to make the dangerous journey north as it has rolled back some of its predecessor’s hardline policies. The White House has said it is working to fix a broken system left behind by the Trump administration.
US Customs and Border Protection earlier this month said more than 100,000 people were encountered at the US-Mexico border in February. That includes almost 9,500 unaccompanied children, the highest number since May 2019 and a 62 per cent increase compared with January.
At the current level, US-Mexico border crossings are on track to be the highest in 20 years, Biden administration officials have said.
While the Biden administration has repeatedly emphasised that the US southern border remains closed, it has suspended a Trump-era public health rule that allowed the immediate expulsion of unaccompanied minors. It has continued immediately expelling other migrants, however.
Harris will be involved in diplomatic work with the Central American countries from which the vast majority of migrants attempting to cross the southern border have come, fleeing corruption, violence and poverty that has grown worse during the coronavirus pandemic.
Her appointment would signal to the northern triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, along with Mexico, that there was a senior US person “dedicated to this effort”, a senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday.
Harris’ appointment is the latest sign of a diplomatic push by the Biden administration to address the root causes of migration, as well as focusing on border security.
The US sent three senior diplomats to Mexico earlier this week to work on developing “an effective and humane plan of action to manage migration”, according to the White House’s National Security Council.
Meanwhile, the state department appointed Ricardo Zúñiga, a former Obama adviser on Latin America, as special envoy for the “northern triangle”.
Mexico announced last week that it was tightening security at its border with Guatemala, citing the need to combat Covid-19. Since then, Mexico’s militarised National Guard police force has been deployed on the banks of the Suchiate River on the border with Guatemala, one of the main migrant crossing points.