If President Biden is grooming Vice President Kamala Harris to be his successor, he has a funny way of showing it.
Biden on Wednesday announced that Harris will be the administration’s point person on immigration issues amid a fresh round of public attention on a so-called “surge” of migrants at the southern border of the United States. Her task is twofold: to strengthen America’s relationships with the Latin American countries that are the prime source of migration, and to address the reasons migrants leave those countries.
“I can think of nobody who is better qualified to do this,” Biden said.
“There is no question that this is a challenging situation,” Harris added.
Maybe too challenging. Wednesday’s announcement creates a notable political hazard for Harris and her ambitions to one day win the White House. Immigration is one of the most notoriously sticky debates in American politics, a test for the vice president that offers more opportunities for failure than success.
Consider the last 20 years of immigration politics in this country. George W. Bush tried to reform America’s immigration laws and failed. Barack Obama tried to reform America’s immigration laws and failed. Donald Trump took a different tack — he found some political success by demonizing immigrants, and as president his policies were deliberately cruel. But he, too, ultimately failed: Thousands of migrants from Latin American countries continue to weigh the risks and conclude that journeying to the United States is a better option than staying where they are.
Bush and Obama, at least, tried a mix of carrot-and-stick approaches. Bush sought a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented migrants already living in the United States. Obama hoped to secure permanent status for hundreds of thousands of young migrants — the so-called “DREAMers” — who were brought to the country as children. In order to get deals with hardliners in Congress, both men sent National Guard troops to the border as a show of toughness. Obama even became known as the “Deporter-in-Chief” for the record number of expulsions on his watch.
The deals never materialized. GOP immigration hawks in Congress refused to permit any legislation that would create any form of “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. Obama, at least, tried to circumvent the blockade with executive action to allow the DREAMers to stay in the United States, but that effort has proven fragile over time.
Immigration has proven easy to demagogue, but difficult to address constructively. History suggests that becoming the face of America’s immigration policy is a bad deal for Harris. It is just too easy to look ineffective, which is terrible branding for a presidential hopeful.
Ineffectiveness isn’t the only possible trap for Harris. By launching mass deportations, Obama earned the ire of a number of Latino voters, an burden that carried over to Biden’s 2020 campaign. During the primaries, those voters overwhelmingly supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Even after Biden had the party’s nomination wrapped up, activists warned that he needed to seek forgiveness for Obama’s actions.
“Biden needs to be accountable,” Joe Enriquez Henry, vice president of the Midwestern region of League of United Latin American Citizens, told Politico in July. Biden did win the Latino vote against Trump, but by a smaller margin than expected. His campaign did a notoriously poor job of reaching out to those voters, but it’s not out of the question that the Obama-era deportations remained a factor. While there is no sign that Biden plans to carry out deportations on a similar scale, Harris must surely be aware of the potential to alienate a key constituency she’ll need for her own White House run.
The GOP is ready and waiting with criticisms, of course.
“If President Biden’s intent was to show he’s taking the crisis at our border seriously, he’s actually done the complete opposite by selecting V.P. Harris to lead on this issue,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, tweeted on Wednesday. “He’s completely trivialized this issue by putting someone in charge that flat out, just doesn’t care.”
So Harris won’t be able to hide. To succeed, she will have to do what no American leader before her has done and master the politics of immigration. Her presidential ambitions may be hanging in the balance.