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VP Harris To Work With Central American Countries To Address Root Causes Of Migration

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Vice President Harris got a big assignment today. She's been put in charge of working with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador on tackling the deep problems that are pushing so many migrants to head for the United States. Here's how she described the issues in a CBS interview this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS THIS MORNING")

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: We need to deal with what's happening in the Northern Triangle and address it in a way that is about not only diplomacy, but bringing our allies together, dealing with what we need to do around aid in a way that is about developing those countries so that we also deal with the cause of why people are coming into our country.

CORNISH: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been covering the White House response to the influx in migrants, and he joins us now. And Franco, what does it say about the situation at the border that the president has put Vice President Harris in charge of this diplomatic effort?

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Well, Audie, it's a sign of how serious the issue is for the new administration, you know, dealing with thousands of people, including thousands of children coming to the border and looking for asylum. Biden told reporters today that by giving this job to Harris, he's telling leaders of the Northern Triangle countries and Mexico that he's elevated this to the highest level. Now, the vice president is someone who's been in all of Biden's most important meetings, and he has taken great pains to show that he has a very close working relationship with Harris. Here's actually how he put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: They don't have to wonder about, is that where the president is. When she speaks, she speaks for me, doesn't have to check with me. She knows what she's doing. And I hope we can move this along.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, this effort is in large part about fixing part of the asylum system. The vast majority of people who come to the border are turned away. Biden said he wants Harris to work with the nations to accept people who are being returned and also to do more of their own enforcement at their borders.

CORNISH: Can we come back to Biden's comments, though, about her role in this? Obviously, there are other Cabinet members that might have this in their portfolio. How is the news being received of her having this spot?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, there's been a lot of talk and speculation about what policy lane Harris would carve out for herself, especially given the historic nature of her vice presidency. And until now, it really wasn't that clear. I spoke with Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University who is also a vice presidential historian. He felt those questions about her role were really overplayed. He said this assignment, which has huge political stakes, shows Biden's trust in her and that this is a good role for a vice president.

JOEL GOLDSTEIN: What's significant about this role is it's important, it's crosscutting, both in terms of foreign policy, domestic policy and it's one that involves multiple departments and agencies of the government.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, Biden wants Congress to give $4 billion in aid to Northern Triangle countries to work on the root issues of migration. And this aid is mainly going to communities and international organizations rather than governments because of concerns about corruption. Harris was a prosecutor and California's attorney general before being elected to the U.S. Senate - pardon me. Biden said that makes her the most qualified person to lead the effort.

CORNISH: Any clues about how she might approach the job?

ORDOÑEZ: Not yet. I should note that this is a similar role that Biden himself played when he was vice president. He worked with these countries on behalf of President Obama. Harris will be working with officials who have been to the region, but there's no immediate plan for Harris to visit in person. But officials told us today that she is expected to hold some virtual meetings with leaders in, you know, the near future.

CORNISH: That's Franco Ordoñez, NPR's White House correspondent.

Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF [OCEAN JAMS]'S "SUMMER RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.