VP Harris’s Thankless Task: Immigration reform is the graveyard of politics

OPINION: Vice President Kamala Harris's new task of trying to come up with a workable strategy on immigration reform at the border comes with huge political risks for the White House hopeful

Vice President Harris Speaks To National League Of Cities From The White House
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Vice President Kamala Harris, like all vice presidents before her, has become essentially invisible. We see her standing quietly (masked) behind President Joe Biden at White House press events. We see her on Twitter or Instagram posting photos of her visits to promote the American Rescue Plan. We’ve also seen Vice President Harris teasing her husband (the second gentleman) on Twitter over March Madness brackets.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks after visiting a classroom at West Haven Child Development Center on March 26, 2021 in West Haven, Connecticut. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

But, the once-powerful, sharp, prosecutorial U.S. Senator is now the loyal number two to President Biden — something the former vice president to Barack Obama knows well himself.

Read More: Biden taps VP Harris to lead response to border challenges

And although Harris is arguably the most powerful woman in the world, in reality, the job of vice president is often thankless and isolating. Most former vice presidents who became president (Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and now President Joe Biden) suffered silently in the job. Many grumbled on the record about how diminishing the role was. 

Many vice presidents were once powerful U.S. senators, governors, or members of Congress, who went from being visible and vocal to being relatively silent and obscure. Lyndon Johnson, who was the powerful Senate majority leader before he accepted the offer to serve as JFK’s running-mate in 1960, was the most miserable of them all according to historians.

President John F. Kennedy, right, meets with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson
President John F. Kennedy, right, meets with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office September 17, 1963 in Washington, DC. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

A once vice president himself, Nelson Rockefeller shared an encounter with Johnson in Miami, per The Washington Post: “The ‘real shocker,’ was an encounter with an ‘absolutely frustrated, absolutely furious’ Lyndon Johnson in a hotel room in Miami where ‘nobody was paying attention to him.”

As for Biden when he served as vice president 2009-2017, President Obama gave him a big job right out the gate to help with the U.S. rescue plan for the then economic crisis of 2008/2009. Biden took the role of what many called “sheriff” and won great praise for helping to create a rescue plan that Obama signed into law in February 2009. 

As for Harris, however, her new task of trying to come up with a workable strategy on immigration reform at the southern border will be monumental and it comes with huge political risks for the White House hopeful in 2024 or 2028.

On March 24, 2021, Vice President Harris and President Biden met with cabinet members and immigration advisors in the State Dining Room at the White House to discuss the growing number of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, which has reached a two-decade high, to announce that Harris will be leading the administration’s efforts to handle the challenges (which some have described as a “crisis”) at the border.

President Biden And Vice President Harris Meet With Cabinet Members And Immigration Advisors
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and President Joe Biden meet with cabinet memebrs and immigration advisors in the State Dining Room on March 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

According to the White House via a Politico report, Harris will have two goals: 1. Work to slow the flow of ‘irregular migrants’ by addressing ‘the root causes’ that prompt them to leave their home countries and 2. Strengthen U.S. relationships with Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where most of the migrants come from. 

This is a tall order. The migrant crisis reached a crescendo during the Trump presidency, and in just the first 100 days of the Biden administration, the flow of migrants has grown to, perhaps, a deeper crisis level. 

Read More: Vice President Kamala Harris’ portfolio becomes focus of Biden agenda

My concern with all of this is not that Vice President Harris isn’t capable of overseeing this task. Of course, she is. But, this issue (illegal immigration) has been at the forefront of American politics for decades. It is divisive. It is raw. And it is not easily fixable. If so, we would have done it years ago. 

As the first woman, and the first woman of color vice president of the United States, Harris could be set-up for failure; one that could come back to haunt her during a likely run in 2024 (if Biden decides not to seek re-election) or in 2028 when a possible second Biden term would be coming to an end. 

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The reality is that Harris, who was both attorney general of California and a U.S. Senator from The Golden State, is acutely aware of immigration policy and challenges. But in this very racially charged, anti-immigrant climate, can she come up with policy recommendations and changes that Democrats can actually enact in the Congress, or at the very least policy that President Biden can direct the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to enact to fix this growing crisis? It remains to be seen. 

In the final analysis, the modern vice presidency is different than it was in Lyndon Johnson’s day. Vice presidents like Bush, Walter Mondale, Al Gore, and Biden have been vice presidents of consequence. 

Former Vice President Mike Pence is an outlier in that he was given the responsibility of leading the coronavirus pandemic task force, and oversaw a public health crisis that left over 550,000 Americans dead and counting. And with Dr. Deborah Birx recently going on the record to say that Trump-Pence administration officials were not allowed to tell public the truth about the state of the pandemic, it is quite clear Pence failed at his big test. 

I fear Harris is being given something that she cannot possibly come out of in a positive light. I hope I am wrong. But only time will tell.

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio.com. She is the author of “The Woman Code: 20 Powerful Keys to Unlock Your Life.”

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