The sun beat down on the 30ft border fence that separates El Paso, Texas from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, as temperatures headed towards 100F on the southern border that stands as a symbol for so much in American politics.
The heat was also on for Vice-President Kamala Harris, who was making her first trip to the border since being tasked with immigration policy by Joe Biden more than three months ago.
It is not an easy job. She was handed one of the toughest issues in American politics and one that has plagued successive American presidents for several decades, no matter what political party was occupying the White House.
Criticism for Harris came from both sides of the political aisle for the length of time it took her to make the trip on Friday.
More attacks came from Donald Trump, who had accepted an offer from Texas’ rightwing governor Greg Abbott to tour the border ahead of an attempt by Republican-run Texas to fund the completion of a border wall. “If Governor Abbott and I weren’t going there next week, she would have never gone!” Trump said.
But Trump’s criticism of Harris was hardly the only voice raised against her as she seeks to come to grips with immigration and border security. She was also criticized by immigration activists and many on the left of the Democratic party for the message she delivered during an early June visit to Guatemala.
“Do not come. Do not come,” she said. “I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.”
The blunt message was ill-received by those who pointed out that Harris’ parents were also immigrants.
“[Her comments] reinforced the years of attacks on the rights of refugees and asylum seekers by the previous administration,” said Dylan Corbett, the director of a local non-profit organization that focuses on immigration policies and aiding migrants in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. “The message should be: ‘How can we, together, build a future where your children don’t have to migrate?’”
After touring a border patrol facility to kick off her visit, Harris made an unannounced stop at the Paso Del Norte port of entry, a busy international bridge that connects the downtown centers of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
While there, she met with five girls detained at the bridge’s processing center, aged between nine and 16 and all from Central America. The meeting was closed to the press, but her office described the meeting as positive, with the girls calling Harris an inspiration and drawing photos for her.
Approximately 1,600 children just like those girls are being housed in shelters at the US army’s Fort Bliss in El Paso, according to US media, where there are lengthy stays, poor conditions and infrequent meetings with lawyers.
But a visit to the controversial shelter on Fort Bliss was not part of the vice-president’s visit, despite the announcement of an investigation of the housing for migrant children.
Across the street from her meeting with the girls, a small group of immigration advocates chanted from the corner, “Si, se puede!” after Harris left. She headed back to the airport, where she met with the leaders of immigrants rights organizations. The focus of their discussion was reported as the root causes and drivers of immigration to the United States.
Behind the talk, though, is a brutal reality.
The trip from Central America for many immigrants is long and potentially lethal, especially for children. There are deaths from heat stroke as migrants trek through triple-digit desert heat, or fall from the 30ft high border wall already in place in high-traffic areas along the international line.
Migrants who survive that fall are just a few of the people who are taken to a local non-profit organization, Annunciation House, which operates as a network of shelters, helping to connect migrants with family in the States and legal representation for asylum cases.
The injuries range from fractured ankles to head injuries that have left a woman quadriplegic, according to the director of Annunciation House, Ruben Garcia.
“We have such little appreciation for what they’re risking to be safe, to put food on the table,” Garcia said. “These people aren’t coming here because they want to put jacuzzis in their houses.”
Nor is getting to the border, or even across it, the end of the story. Should migrants survive the trip from their home countries, through Mexico and across the border into the US, in most cases, they are not currently allowed to stay in the US, even when seeking asylum.
Nearly 100,000 migrants have been expelled from El Paso, Texas, into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, since October, according to data provided by the border patrol. The expulsions are still taking place under a policy known as Title 42, implemented by the Trump administration. Thus far, Title 42 has been kept in place by the Biden administration despite outcry from immigration organizations.
“The expulsions under Title 42 are still rampant,” Garcia said.
The policy falls under the umbrella of public health and was implemented as a response to Covid-19. “We all know it had nothing to do with the pandemic, it had to do with immigration control,” Garcia said. “I tell people: Donald Trump did get his wall. It’s called Title 42.”
There was little sign Harris planned to end that. Nor is there much doubt that the debate over immigration and the border in the US will remain toxic after a Trump era when many Republicans – including the former president – made openly racist statements about immigrants.
“In the United States, there is an incredibly significant population that doesn’t want you, they speak extremely derogatorily about you,” said Garcia. “They wouldn’t care if you die on the way, they wouldn’t care if you fell off the wall and broke your back.”
Harris sought to draw a little of that poison on her trip. “Let’s not lose sight that we’re talking about human beings,” she said.
After meeting with Harris, Linda Rivas, the executive director of Las Americas, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation during immigration processes, said she was grateful to share the stories of her clients with the vice-president but also called for more action. “The Biden-Harris administration must improve the asylum process and end the cruel border policies that ripped families apart,” Rivas said.
But as the policy debate continues and Harris mulls her next steps, the heat is unlikely to relent – either in US politics or at the sweltering border itself.
In a statement last week, US Customs and Border Protection described crossing the border in the desert in the summer. “The terrain along the border is extreme, the summer heat is severe, and the miles of desert migrants must hike after crossing the border in many areas are unforgiving,” it said.
At the moment, not much looks likely to change that.