Harris Headed for Chilly Times as Migrants Flood the Border

  • A lack of public appearance and the controversy around the border crisis have led to a dangerous drop in Harris’ public approval rating.
  • The VP’s plans for immigration reform will likely result in improvement, but only in the long term.
  • Harris’ management of immigration and the current crisis at the border will prove crucial to the success of the Biden Administration.
Kamala Harris - United States of America (USA)
Source: LA Times

Why is Harris’ heat level chilly?

Answer: The Vice President’s approval rating has dropped dangerously low.

Since taking office, the U.S. Vice President has suffered a sharp decline in popularity among the general public, with 50% of registered voters holding an unfavourable opinion of her as of September. These low ratings—lagging slightly behind those of President Biden—might be indicative of a bigger problem for Harris.

This drop in public approval can be traced to two issues addressed by Harris since her inauguration eight months ago. First, after a long period of appearing somewhat absent from public duties while multiple crises enveloped the Administration, she travelled to California in support of Governor Gavin Newsom, calling on Californians to vote against recalling his position. Newsom himself is the subject of controversy, accused of imposing harsh COVID-19 restrictions with which he does not comply.

Second, Harris gave a number of uncomfortable interviews on the thorny issue of migrants at the Mexican border, resulting in Republicans and Democrats alike expressing concern about her ability to manage the crisis. The border issue dominated former President Trump’s term and will likely continue to do so, as climatic events and economic issues push Central Americans toward the USA.

Who is changing Harris’ temperature?

Answer: Her defence of the Californian Governor’s position and Guatemalan President Giammattei’s unforgiving criticism of her border policies.

Harris’ interest in saving Governor Newsom’s position extended beyond that of state-level politics. Concerns for Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s health and old age highlight the Democrats’ anxieties about the current balance of power in Washington DC. Were she to resign or pass away while in office, the governor would pick her replacement, and a Republican selection would flip control of the evenly divided Senate.

The Vice President also took the opportunity to criticise the GOP’s recent changes to abortion and voting laws in Texas, emphasising Newsom’s progressive politics and trustworthiness to deliver. In the end, high Democrat turnout thwarted the recall attempt against Newsom, but Harris’ involvement was deemed controversial.

The border issue, meanwhile, has been a thorn in the side of both Democratic and Republican administrations, and Harris has made it one of her main focuses. Biden’s election to the presidency brought hope for many new migrants and surges in the numbers gathering at the border have resulted in mass deportations. Guatemalan President Giammattei has accused the U.S. of sending mixed messages to migrants after Harris requested that they do not attempt to cross the border, having previously promised to reunite families.

Cooperation between the Biden Administration and the governments of Central American countries is inherent to Harris’ border strategy, however, the U.S. has since lost confidence in the Guatemalan government in the fight against corruption after the Attorney General dismissed the anti-corruption prosecutor. These events have attracted criticism from all fronts, contributing to V.P.’s drop in favourable ratings.

What is driving Harris?

Answer: Reforming immigration policy is key to both her and the success of the Biden Administration.

Harris is the daughter of immigrant parents and believes in rights for migrants. Having worked as a lawyer in California on behalf of migrants and asylum seekers, she does not believe an undocumented migrant to be guilty of a crime and disagreed with Obama’s deportation policies, advocating instead for due process and the right to counsel. Harris was a popular addition to the Biden Administration among young, progressive Americans who valued the election of a Black-Asian woman to such a role and account for much of her support base. It is in her interest, therefore, to take a progressive and compassionate stance on immigration.

Immigration reform and successful handling of the border crisis are key to the Biden-Harris “America is back” attitude. In July, as part of her new strategy to address the crisis, the White House released the U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America. The document outlines an approach to create faster legal pathways to immigration but emphasises a strategy to keep migrants in their home countries by promoting development and tackling crime and corruption.

It’s an ambitious strategy and one which will take more than one term in office to set in motion. These long-term plans, however, may prove detrimental to her hopes for re-election in the short term, as the U. S. public and media are more concerned with the immediate border crisis.

Harris aims to promote an image of the Biden Administration as compassionate but firm, providing legal pathways for refugees and asylum seekers, while working with foreign governments to tackle the root causes of migration. Nonetheless, she faces the same issues as her predecessors; she is caught between pleasing progressives and the mammoth task of mediating a humanitarian crisis and national security concerns. Eight months in, it appears Harris’ short-term goals outlined in the document have remained largely incomplete, likely due to various pressures from the COVID-19 crisis, the Afghanistan crisis, and opposition from Republicans and centrist Democrats.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Harris’ plans for the border show promise, but only in the long term. Her low approval rating suggests she may not be able to see them through.

Former President Trump’s immigration policies reflected the rise of populism around the world, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic and the subsequent increased control at international borders. Harris’ approach sparks optimism for those fighting Trumpian policies and nationalism in the USA. It also gives hope to those Central American citizens seeking to cross the border. Under Harris, the path to legal citizenship in the USA should become shorter and clearer. This will accelerate the U.S.’s already rapidly shifting demographic profile and will entail significant changes in the political landscape.

As Harris believes in tackling the root causes of migration, we can expect to see increased investment in Central American countries, particularly the Northern Triangle. Harris has called for investment and participation from other governments, international institutions, businesses, foundations, and civil society. However, research shows that while development does reduce migration in the long-term, it is a long process that will likely not be completed by the end of Biden’s time in office. Given her low popularity ratings, Harris may not survive a second term to see these plans through.

Harris has ambitious plans for immigration, but she is fighting an uphill battle. Her actions, or lack thereof, have thus far attracted criticism from all sides. Her handling of issues as pertinent as immigration will have an impact far beyond that of her own popularity; the shaky handover of the presidency amidst accusations of electoral fraud and the subsequent events at Capitol Hill left the Biden Administration fighting for legitimacy domestically, at a crucial moment for the USA internationally.

If she does not fulfil her promises for immigration reform, she risks losing her entire support base, as well as contributing to an ongoing humanitarian crisis that will inevitably worsen over the coming years. The Democrats’ success on this issue while holding office will have a significant impact on the 2024 election, in which former President Trump will likely run again. Her success or failure at the border, therefore, will prove crucial to the future of U.S. politics.

Claudia Bond

Research and Analysis Intern