"Do Not Come": Kamala Harris's Warning to Migrants

Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People hosted by the Center for the American Progress Action Fund and the SEIU at the Enclave in Las Vegas, Nevada. Credit: Gage Skidmore.

On June 7, while on her first official visit outside of the United States as Vice President, Kamala Harris issued a stark warning to would-be migrants from Guatemala: “I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border,” she said, shaking her head as photographers’ cameras flashed. “Do not come. Do not come.” This is quite a departure from the message of Emma Lazarus’s poem affixed to the Statue of Liberty in 1903: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The exceedingly generous way to read Harris’s comments is to assume she has the best interests of migrants at heart. The journey to the United States from Central America is brutal in every possible way. But why is the journey—and the border—so dangerous? The second half of Harris’s comments lend a clue: “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border.”

This raised my hackles. First and foremost, Harris seems to imply that seeking asylum at the border is illegal, or wrong. This is patently false. And as a person who has volunteered and worked with a migrants’ rights group along our Southwestern border, and as a Jewish person whose family came to the United States to escape poverty and antisemitism, I have come to understand borders as inventions and tools of capital and empire. To put it more simply: The border is dangerous because the United States makes it so. 

The desert itself is utilized as a tool of enforcement—something I wrote about for the New York Times on behalf of No More Deaths/No Más Muertes when I lived in Tucson, Arizona. ICE and the Department of Homeland Security systematically drive people into the most dangerous and remote parts of the desert, routinely ignore emergency calls, and apprehend and punish individuals they do encounter, even if the persons in question identify as refugees presenting themselves for asylum. Our processing centers are functional jails, with families sleeping in wire cages, a hundred to a room, even as a pandemic rages. There is little oversight in the agency—much less in the most remote corners of the desert. We have transformed our borderlands into a machine of misery. We are beyond the question of reform. 

These policies are not new: Child separation began under President Obama, while ICE was established in 2004 under President George W. Bush. Despite the swell of support to #AbolishICE that trended during Trump’s presidency, President Biden has made it abundantly clear his administration has no intention of demolishing the agency and redirecting its funding toward non-punitive support for migrants. 

We use the words of a Jewish American poet, Emma Lazarus, to grace the physical embodiment of our pride in being a “nation of immigrants.” (There is, of course, irony in a country of settlers and refugees closing the door on any group—the richest country in the world, founded on the land of the First Nations, continually narrowing the criteria for resettlement while remaining directly involved in the conflicts and overreach that drive migration.) We clamored to elect a president we could “hold accountable.” But we are mostly concerned, it seems, with empty gestures; with things being said in the “right tone,” rather than justice. Far too many liberals are comfortable overlooking atrocities committed by Democratic presidents. 

We cannot point with pride to the words of Emma Lazarus when our Vice President delivers the opposite message—even if she says it in a firm tone, even if she says it as the first woman to hold her office, even if she says it as a child of immigrants herself. Lazarus cared deeply about the rights of Jewish refugees, and was especially concerned with Russian Jewiwhs immigrants living in squalid conditions. There’s a reason her words, which emphasize compassion for migrants, were chosen to adorn the Statue of Liberty: because we have long fancied ourselves to be a nation built on the strength of immigrants, an imperfect nation that crackles with possibility because of the people who grace its shores. Policies and governments do not exist in the abstract: We are not beholden to the Department of Homeland Security as an untouchable entity. How dare we turn anyone back? 

Topics: Immigration
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How to cite this page

Orlovsky-Schnitzler, Justine. ""Do Not Come": Kamala Harris's Warning to Migrants." 29 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 13, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/do-not-come-kamala-harriss-warning-migrants>.