Remarks by Vice President Harris, Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas, Chairman Durbin, and Representative Escobar in Press Conference
El Paso International Airport
El Paso, Texas
11:50 A.M. MDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: This has been a great trip to El Paso. As you all have heard me say many times, I strongly believe that most people don’t want to leave home. And when they do, it is because either they are fleeing some harm or because to stay means that they cannot provide for the basic necessities of their family.
That belief has been reinforced throughout our day today. Whether it was when I met with children who are unaccompanied minors, or I met with leaders who have been on the ground in El Paso for many, many years doing work that is directly about supporting and interacting with folks who are immigrating to the United States and who are crossing this border.
My trip to Guatemala and Mexico was about addressing the root causes. The stories that I heard and the interactions that we had today reinforce the nature of those root causes: a lack of economic opportunity; very often violence, corruption, and food insecurity; and basic needs not being met, including a fear of cartels and gang violence.
So, the work that we have to do is the work of addressing the cause — the root causes. Otherwise, we will continue to see the effect: what is happening at the border. It is going to require, as we have been doing, a comprehensive approach that acknowledges each piece of this, informed also by the recognition that the United States is a neighbor in the Western Hemisphere, and not only do we have a reason to concern ourselves with the root cause issues because of what we see at the border, but also because we are — we live in that neighborhood, the Western Hemisphere. And like anyone living in a neighborhood, one must understand and see the effect and the relationship between fellow neighbors.
So that’s the work we’ve done. I want to, in particular, recognize Secretary Mayorkas. The time that we spent with the dedicated men and women of CBP really has reinforced the work that Secretary Mayorkas has done in terms of bringing technology, bringing resources, bringing professionalism and support to the men and women who are on the ground doing the job every day.
I commend all of them for the success that they have seen thus far. I’d call it “progress.” We’re not exactly where we want to be yet, but we have seen extreme progress over these last few months because of his dedication and his efforts.
So, with that, I want to also make the point: You know, when we have this conversation about what’s happening at the border, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about human beings. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about stories that, as the Bishop shared and many of the community folks shared, involve horrendous tales of abuse and fear and harm — not only for folks who are coming here in their home country experiencing that, but along the path of their migration.
And so let’s recognize, with a sense of humanity, that these issues must be addressed in a way that is informed by fact and informed by reality and informed by perspective that actually is dedicated to addressing problems and fixing them in the most constructive and productive way.
The President and I are absolutely committed to ensuring that our immigration system is orderly and humane. And I do believe that we are making progress in that regard.
So, with that, I’m going to now introduce the Secretary of the Department of the Homeland Security, Ali Mayorkas, to make a few comments.
SECRETARY MAYORKAS: Thank you very much, Madam Vice President. And I’m privileged to be with you today.
I recommended to the Vice President that we visit El Paso because it is one of the busiest sectors on the border. El Paso reflects the many diverse elements of our mission. It demonstrates, also, the progress that has been made and the work that remains.
In March, this sector experienced overcrowding of unaccompanied children staying in the Border Patrol station for more than an average of 120 hours. We saw too many children in a Border Patrol facility not designed for them for too long. The President and the Vice President directed me, in the execution of my responsibilities as the Secretary of Homeland Security, to take care of it.
Today, the situation is dramatically different. The Border Patrol station is not overcrowded with children, and an unaccompanied child spends an average of less than 30 hours in it.
Border surges have been a challenge for years and years, and to address the challenge successfully requires a multi-part plan. We have a plan.
The Vice President is leading our nation’s effort to tackle the root causes of migration — why people leave their home in the first place.
I and my colleagues in the Cabinet have been directed to execute the rest of the plan: to build safe and legal pathways for people who qualify for humanitarian relief under the laws our Congress has passed; to rebuild our country’s asylum system that was dismantled under the prior administration; in an orderly and just way, to remove those whose claims for relief do not qualify.
I am immensely proud to lead the workforce — the men and women of DHS — in executing our responsibility to secure the border and execute the safe, orderly, and humane process, as the President and the Vice President have directed.
I am grateful to the Vice President for leading the effort to tackle the root causes of migration, her focus on what is happening in the Northern Triangle countries of origin.
I am hopeful that Congress will pass immigration reform to fix a system that everyone recognizes is broken. And I am thankful for the Chairman’s years-long leadership and championing of this effort. Thank you.
CHAIRMAN DURBIN: For several years, I served in the Senate with Kamala Harris, the senator from California. We worked on many issues together. There was never a doubt in my mind, when it came to the issue of immigration, that we were of the same mind as to what America needed to do.
When she was given an opportunity to join President Biden in leading this country, she was also given an opportunity to use that commitment to immigration to solve one of America’s hardest political problems. Her attendance today in El Paso is an indication of her caring and her commitment to meaningful immigration reform.
And I want to join her by saying that the Congress needs to do its part when it comes to immigration reform. It has been 35 years since we’ve had an immigration bill. Everybody complains about the immigration system — and they should; it’s broken — but when it comes to dealing with it, many of the folks in the Senate and the House don’t want to lift a finger. We need a bipartisan effort to come up with a meaningful, humane, sensible, immigration policy in America.
I want to salute the Congresswoman Veronica Escobar. She and I have discussed her vision of immigration reform. I believe she’s moving in the right direction, in terms of dealing not only with the challenges of today, but what our nation looks like tomorrow.
It was an honor to be back here in El Paso with the Vice President. I thank her for the invitation today. And I’d like for the Congresswoman, at this point, to say a few words.
REPRESENTATIVE ESCOBAR: Thank you, Chairman. And thank you so much, Madam Vice President, for being here. It’s been an incredible honor and privilege, and I’m so grateful that you accepted my invitation. And, Secretary, thank you for your incredible leadership and partnership.
You know, El Paso has been central to so much of what we have seen for decades when it comes to immigration. And I feel very hopeful because, for the first time in the — at least four years, we have an administration interested in addressing this significant challenge in a multifaceted way. But it starts with the work that the Vice President is doing in addressing root causes.
But the work doesn’t begin and end with her. As the Chairman mentioned, Congress has an important role. In the House of Representatives, we have passed legislation. We are also working on passing the U.S. Citizenship Act. And we’ve got to get the Senate — and support from the Senate to make this happen.
Even then, the work is not over. We have to completely re-envision the way that we greet migrants at our nation’s front door.
All of this will take time. All of this will take a commitment. But we finally have a President and a Vice President who have that commitment, and they are in it to create permanent, meaningful change — positive change.
El Paso is the perfect place to — for the — for the Vice President to continue on her exploration of the issues around why people are leave — leaving their country.
In our community, we have not just a central processing center that — that addresses those arriving at our front door, but that often receives migrants from other sectors. We also have emergency influx — an emergency influx facility. We have licensed shelters. We have a robust NGO — a group of organizations working together.
And so, I’m very proud that El Paso — a place that has always met our nation’s challenges with grace, goodwill, compassion, and kindness — that we were the site of the Vice President’s visit, and we stand ready to work with her.
Q Vice President Harris? Vice President Harris? Your critics and even some of your allies are referring to this trip as a “check-the-box visit” to the border that will have little effect on immigration policy. What did you intend to achieve with this visit? And how you respond to Republicans who say you should have visited an area along the border that is experiencing more acute immigration problems, such as the Rio Grande Valley?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, first of all, what is happening here in El Paso really is — in many ways, highlights many of the facets on the issue of immigration. It is here in El Paso that the previous administration’s child separation policy was unveiled. And so, we’ve seen the disastrous effects of that right here in this region.
It is here in El Paso that the Return to Mexico policy from the previous administration was implemented. We have seen the disaster that resulted from that.
Here in El Paso, we’ve also seen great work happening through the Department of Homeland Security, under the leadership of Secretary Mayorkas, and the work of the men and women of Customs and Border Patrol. They have instituted technology that, over the last couple of months, has expedited, in a very significant way, processing of people who are arriving at our border.
We are seeing here, in El Paso, unaccompanied minors — who I spent time with — who are filled with optimism, but they are without their family. Young children, they’re being processed through the system. But it really does speak to, also, the humanitarian nature of the work that must be done when we are looking at young children who are not with their families and thinking about how we are going to institute a humane and comprehensive system that addresses that.
So, this has been a very important trip. This has been a trip that also is connected with the obvious point: If you want to deal with a problem, you can’t just deal with the symptom of the problem, you got to figure out what caused it to happen.
Which is why, after taking a leadership role on root causes, one of the first trips I took was to Guatemala and Mexico to see, on the ground there, what is happening, in terms of the concerns about everything from corruption, to food insecurity, to the lack of opportunity for Indigenous People, Afro-descendants, women; doing the work of seeing firsthand the challenges that that country has faced because of extreme climate conditions; and addressing then America’s priorities, again, as a neighbor in the Western Hemisphere — focusing those priorities on the actual root causes so that we can, by inference, have an impact on the effect.
And I’m very excited about the potential, as we have talked with these congressional leaders and with the Secretary — the focus that we have placed on the root causes includes bringing together CEOs from some of America’s largest corporations; bringing together some of the world’s largest foundations, based here in the United States; bringing together civil society and working on a comprehensive approach that is our administration’s resolve toward the overall issue, which is root causes and then deal with what’s happening at the border.
And, again, I will say that Ali Mayorkas is doing an extraordinary job: boots on the ground here at the border, implementing reforms within the Department of Homeland Security that are clearly having an effect of expediting, in a fair and judicious way, the folks who are arriving.
Q A question for you or for the Secretary. Here in El Paso and in many other border cities, people’s lives — families are spread across both sides of the border, and those lives have been interrupted over the last 15 months with the pandemic border restrictions. So I’d like to know where do the plans stand on reopening the border, and is there a target date?
Also, is there more plans for vaccines to be sent to Mexico? And what is your plan to distribute those vaccines equally across the entire border?
SECREATRY MAYORKAS: So, thanks very much for that question. We’re very sensitive to the issue that you raise. The decision when to ease the restrictions on travel across the border is based on the science and the data that the Centers for Disease Control has. It’s a public health decision. It is based on the wellbeing of the American public. We are mindful of the economic consequences of the restrictions that currently exist, and those will be eased as the public imperative dictates.
Q But now Americans are able to travel back and forth freely to Mexico. Why are non-citizen Mexicans who hold visas not able to come?
SECREATRY MAYORKAS: We are — we have imposed restrictions in the service of the public health imperative, and they are guided by that.
So, for example, essential travelers are indeed able to cross through the ports of entry for the reasons of their essential nature. So we — it’s a very measured, calculated approach that addresses the public health imperative and also the objectives of their identity as essential workers.
Q We understand that you — you were able to meet five young girls at the facility, age 9 to 16. Were you also able to meet other migrants while you were there or during the day today?
And with everything that you have seen today, how does that, sort of, inform your understanding of the problems that are currently happening at the border — not just the root causes?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, I met with the children — with the young girls. And, you know, it was interesting. They have obviously fled great harm. They’re without their parents. They are also full of hope. They were asking me questions: “How do you become the first woman Vice President?”
But it also reminds me of the fact that — that this is — this issue cannot be reduced to a political issue. We’re talking about children. We’re talking about families. We’re talking about suffering. And our approach has to be thoughtful and effective.
And we can take all of these perspectives into account and have meaningful, good public policy if we just stop the rhetoric and the finger pointing and do what we need to do, including, as Chairman Durbin has been doing for years, agreeing that we need immigration reform in our country and that Congress must ask [sic] — act. Let’s do the work of agreeing you can’t just react to a problem without solving it at its roots. Let’s agree to that.
So, when I think about what I heard and saw today, I will tell you, it was very reaffirming of everything that I heard and saw when I was in Guatemala; everything that I discussed with President López Obrador in Mexico about the partnership between the United States and Mexico to invest in the root causes, seeing that there is a very clear and direct connection. It literally is direct and clear.
But — but I will tell you, one of the things that — every place — has been a theme has been: People don’t want to leave home if they don’t have to
Q Are you going to do this again (inaudible) border areas? Are you going to meet with other leaders or community organizations that are — may have a different point of view, different perspective — even GOP leaders?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I am meeting with a lot of folks. And the work that we have begun is the work that is going to be ongoing. There is no question — and I said this from the very beginning — that our approach to this issue has to be with a commitment to a long-term investment, and it has to be a commitment to consistency. The United States has to be consistent.
There were times when we were more engaged and we saw good results; less engaged and we can see where — where the work and the partnerships then deteriorate.
So, I am committed to ensuring that we engage — in an active way — on the root causes, on addressing the cause and effect, and also being partners in the Western Hemisphere, understanding that we have a responsibility. And if we ignore that responsibility, it will visit itself upon us in a very domestic way.
So, thank you.
12:11 P.M. MDT