For weeks, Republicans criticized Vice President Kamala Harris for not visiting the border as part of her work to address the root causes of migration. On Friday, the vice president made the trip, and said a meeting with young girls in a border facility had reminded her that the issue should not be reduced to partisan politics.
“They were asking me questions: ‘How do you become the first woman vice president?’” Ms. Harris said. “It also reminds me of the fact that this issue cannot be reduced to a political issue. We’re talking about children, we’re talking about families, we are talking about suffering.”
From the first few minutes of her trip, Ms. Harris was politically a world away from a rare moment of placidity in Washington. As President Biden celebrated a tentative bipartisan deal on an infrastructure package and commemorated Pride Month, Ms. Harris fielded thorny questions from reporters.
“It was always the plan to come here,” she said. “And I think we’re going to have a good and productive day.”
She and Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, faced a hailstorm of questions about the Biden administration’s handling of an influx of migrants. She has been criticized for visiting El Paso instead of the lower Rio Grande Valley, considered the epicenter of the surge in migration.
“It is here in El Paso that the previous administration’s child separation policy was implemented,” Ms. Harris said.
She was also criticized for not visiting a tent complex at nearby Fort Bliss, where migrant children are being held. The Biden administration announced that Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, would travel there next week.
And Ms. Harris and Mr. Mayorkas were asked when the administration would end Title 42, a Trump-era rule that allows the U.S. government to expel migrants, including asylum seekers, for public health reasons. The administration is working on plans to do so, but on Friday, Mr. Mayorkas said the decision would ultimately be made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ms. Harris was praised by Democrats who said her trip showed commitment to solving a problem that has bedeviled presidential administrations for decades.
“Her attendance today in El Paso is an indication of her caring and commitment to meaningful immigration reform,” said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who stood next to her on the tarmac in El Paso. “And I want to join her in saying that Congress needs to do its part.”
But others said Ms. Harris should have used the trip to see facilities that have been strained by an influx of adult migrants and unaccompanied children, as well as to spend more time with local officials, landowners and Border Patrol agents confronting the issue.
“She’ll check off the box of going down to the border,” Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who wrote a letter to Ms. Harris last week urging her to visit, said in an interview. “The folks down there don’t need a pat on the back. They need resources and equipment.”
Ms. Harris visited Customs and Border Protection’s El Paso Processing Center, where she received a briefing and asked about the technology used to scan vehicles at the border and process people who cross illegally.
“I would imagine it also increases the accuracy,” Ms. Harris said as she talked to one official. “Can I take a look at the files?”
Though her office denied that politics played a part in her visit, the stop is politically significant. El Paso is a major port of entry and has complicated ties to former President Donald J. Trump, who will soon travel to the border with Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas.
The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border has hit a record high under the Biden administration, and officials have struggled to quickly move them out of cramped facilities and into the care of family members.