By Raul A. Reyes
Updated: Thu, 10 Jun 2021 17:10:24 GMT
Editor's Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinions on CNN.
This week, Vice President Kamala Harris learned that three little words can cause a lot of damage.
On her first vice presidential trip abroad, Harris stoked controversy when she spoke at a news conference in Guatemala and told potential migrants, "do not come." She warned that would-be migrants would be turned back at the US' southern border, adding, "So let's discourage our friends, our neighbors, our family members from embarking on what is otherwise an extremely dangerous journey."
It is a shame that Harris' comments overshadowed the point of her trip, which was to examine the root causes of unauthorized Central American migration to the US.
She needs to be better prepared to discuss migration, and to sell President Joe Biden's policies to the American public. And this will be no easy task, given that the GOP -- and by extension, conservative media outlets -- often rely on simplistic views of a complex situation.
There's no denying that Harris was wrong to tell Central Americans not to come here. By law, asylum-seekers are required to be present in the US when they make their case. This is as true now as it was when Donald Trump was president. So advising people simply to stay home is brushing aside what could be legitimate fears of persecution in their own countries.
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized Harris' remarks, saying "This is disappointing to see... the US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can't help set someone's house on fire and then blame them for fleeing."
Similarly, when Harris warned about how perilous the trip north is, she was stating the obvious -- at least for people in Central America. They do not need to be told of the dangers involved in trekking to the border; the risks are well-known throughout the region. People undertake the trip out of fear and desperation.
In the future, instead of falling back on the message of "don't come," Harris would be well advised to remind her global audience that asylum is a legal right. It is a right subject to final adjudication by US immigration authorities, and it is complicated. But Americans are capable of understanding nuanced issues, and grasping that we have legal and humanitarian obligations to our neighbors.
In reality, Harris' words were likely not intended for Central Americans. They were probably meant to preclude any Republican charges that the Biden administration is for "open borders."
Yet, when it comes to immigration, it is a waste of time for the Biden administration to try to blunt partisan attacks. Consider that Republicans have seized on Harris' trip as a failure, emphasizing that she has not visited the border. "Vice President Harris is in Mexico today," Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan tweeted Tuesday. "Probably the closest she's ever been to the southern border. But she still won't visit it."
Such a visit to the border probably would have been meaningless. These trips, often taken by Republican lawmakers, amount to little more than a silly photo op. For conservative lawmakers, they are a popular way to remind their base of the "border crisis" and to signal that migration is a threat to the country.
Given that the purpose of Harris' trip was to address the root causes of migration, the notion of a trip to the border this week made no sense.
That didn't stop NBC News' Lester Holt from pressing Harris on why she hadn't been to the border. "I-- and I haven't been to Europe," Harris replied. "And I mean, I don't--I don't understand the point that you're making."
On one hand, her answer swatted away Holt's query. On the other, to some observers she came across as flippant and ill-prepared for what should have been an easily foreseeable question.
Funny, under the previous administration, government neophyte Jared Kushner was tasked with bringing about peace in the Middle East and he wasn't subjected to as much acute scrutiny.
It may well be that as a woman of color and a daughter of immigrants Harris is being held to an impossible standard for success. Multiple administrations have wrestled with problems at the border, and people expect Harris to solve it in a matter of months?
The fact is Republicans have failed in their efforts to paint Biden as a radical socialist, and he has strong favorability ratings. That leaves Harris as a prime target for GOP talking points, especially on immigration -- a contentious issue among voters of both parties.
The only way out of this quandary is for the Biden administration to act boldly and lean into the migration issue. A good start would be to end the use of Title 42, a provision of US law that the Trump administration invoked as a basis for swiftly expelling immigrants.
Another would be to funnel more aid to Central America through non-profit groups and non-governmental organizations, instead of corrupt governments.
Finally, the administration needs to come up with more succinct messaging to counter the GOP's very successful and inaccurate fearmongering. It is time for the Biden administration to make a firm break with the failed, inhumane policies of the past-- and that will ensure more support from progressives.
Vice President Harris has a rare opportunity to help bring about change in Central America. But actions will always speak louder than words. Her work will only be effective when she is advocating smart, compassionate policies.