VP to focus on border diplomacy; no immediate plans to visit

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Vice President Kamala Harris participates in a listening session at the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven, Conn., Friday, March 26, 2021, on how the American Rescue Plan addresses child poverty and education. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris won’t be on the ground at the Southwest border anytime soon as she leads efforts to address a rise in migrants trying to enter the country.

Harris has no plans to visit the U.S.-Mexico border region “in the near future,” spokeswoman Symone Sanders said Friday.

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President Joe Biden on Wednesday asked the vice president to lead diplomatic efforts aimed at addressing a rise in the number of migrants, many of whom come from the three Northern Triangle countries of Central America. Sanders said Harris will go to the border at some point but emphasized the diplomatic nature of the vice president's role.

“The vice president is not doing the border,” Sanders told reporters on a flight to Connecticut, where Harris was promoting the administration's COVID-19 relief package.

Harris has received an extensive briefing on the Northern Triangle and Latin America and will soon start the diplomatic part of her mission. “You can expect she will be speaking with leaders from the region in the near future," Sanders said.

The Biden administration is backing a proposal to provide $7 billion in assistance to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. It believes such support can address the poverty and violence that leads people to flee their homelands for the U.S.

U.S. authorities apprehended more than 100,000 people as they attempted to cross the border in February, the most since spring 2019. The Biden administration is turning most people away under a public health order issued at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak but is allowing unaccompanied children and teens and some families to stay, at least temporarily, in the country.

The increase has strained the capacity of the Border Patrol and the Department of Health and Human Services, which holds the minors in shelters until they can be placed with relatives or sponsors in the U.S. while authorities determine whether they have a legal right to remain in the country, either through asylum or for some other reason.

It has also turned into a political headache for Biden. Republicans have blamed the new administration for the increase in migrants, saying the president encouraged people to come by halting construction on the border wall project, ending restrictions on asylum imposed by former President Donald Trump and backing legislation that would allow millions of people already in the country to eventually become U.S. citizens.

Sen. Ted Cruz led a delegation of lawmakers to the border area Friday. He tweeted out photos of dozens of minors, wrapped in foil-like space blankets, lying on the floor of crowded Border Patrol facilities. “This is a humanitarian and a public health crisis,” the Texas Republican said.

Biden, at a news conference Thursday, pledged to increase efforts to get teens and children out of cramped Border Patrol facilities and into HHS shelters more quickly, but the overall situation does not appear to be getting any better.

A senior Border Patrol official told reporters Friday that the encounters with migrants along the Southwest border have averaged about 5,000 people per day throughout March, which would be about a 50% increase over February if those figures hold for the entire month.

Of the total, about 450-500 per day are unaccompanied minors, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss preliminary figures.

It is not unusual to see increases in migrants coming across the border at this time of year and the Border Patrol has faced similar situations in the past, the official said. But the large numbers of teens and children and the space limitations resulting from the pandemic have made this year especially difficult.

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