VP Harris pressed on the border and Israel during ‘testy’ exchange with student
During her nationwide college stop at Northern Arizona University on Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris had a “testy” exchange with a student who criticized the Biden-Harris administration’s border policies and response to the conflict in Israel and Gaza.
Harris has been on a listening tour at colleges and universities since Sept. 14, engaging with students and young voters on issues important to them, from gun violence, climate, abortion, and racial justice.
The vice president has been well received by student campuses, often with great applause and fanfare, as theGrio previously reported about her visit to the HBCU Morehouse College.
But on Tuesday, while taking a question from senior Jonathan Otero, who described himself as a “proud Chicano” – a term used for Americans of Mexican descent – Harris was criticized for the White House’s handling of immigration and foreign affairs.
A White House pool report from the event by Laura Gersony of The Arizona Republic described the exchange as “testy” inside the university’s auditorium.
“This administration has continued to deport children and their families while simultaneously building a wall,” said Otero. “Children continue to die at the wall because of this administration’s inhumane policies, much like those…in Palestine.”
His statements were immediately met with cheers from the audience of students.
Appearing to criticize the U.S.’s support of Israel amid its war against the militant group Hamas, Otero continued, “Today, Israel bombed the last Christian hospital in Gaza, killing over 500 doctors, children, and refugees…why take away the life of the children in Gaza and at the border?” (The United States believes a Palestinian rocket hit the hospital).
Vice President Harris, who listened carefully as Otero asked his question, moments later responded that as the daughter of an immigrant mother from India, she “absolutely” understood the importance of immigration and that America was “founded by immigrants.”
“It is important that we have a safe, orderly, and fair immigration system,” said Harris.
The vice president said that when she and President Joe Biden took office, the administration’s first piece of legislation proposed to Congress was establishing a pathway to citizenship.
“Republicans in Congress have purposely not picked it up because they have decided it is in their political best interest to create an issue in a way that they can then politicize and play games with – and play games with the lives of people,” said Harris.
In response to Otero’s concerns about the Israel-Hamas war, Harris said, “I believe that Israelis and Palestinians both deserve peace, deserve self-determination, and deserve safety.”
Some applause from students followed her declaration.
The vice president continued, “I am deeply, deeply affected, as I think we all are, by what we have seen in terms of the loss of life and the violence that has occurred.”
She called Hamas a “terrorist organization” and condemned their surprise missile attack.
However, Vice President Harris said it was important to “recognize the distinction between a terrorist organization, Hamas, and the Palestinian people.” She added, “They should not be conflated,” which solicited more cheers from the audience.
Harris concluded that “we must have a response to that in a way that we understand, as humans, that this suffering that is happening is something that we must take seriously.”
After the vice president’s remarks, Otero appeared to continue making comments; however, they were unintelligible because he was no longer using a microphone. Students could be heard jeering from the crowd, with one person yelling, “Do something!”
According to a pool report, another person shouted, “Stop making bombs.”
When moderator María Teresa Kumar, president of the Voto Latino Foundation, interjected and asked another question to keep the program moving, Harris did not shy away from the exchange.
“I am not here to tell young voters what they want – I’m here to listen,” she said. “And that is why I appreciate a candid dialogue about all of the issues at the moment.”
Christina M. Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University, told theGrio she found the vice president’s “I’m not here to tell young voters what they want” comment to be “poignant.”
“If this is indeed a listening tour, if this is indeed a way for the vice president to interact with young voters, to be in dialogue and discussion about their wants and needs, it’s precisely what she [should’ve] said,” said Greer.
The political scientist and TV commentator said the exchange at Northern Arizona University reflected a reality that young Americans “don’t want sort of talking points and niceties” and “want to get to the bottom of certain issues that deeply affect them.”
On the topic of Israel and Gaza, Greer said Harris’ response was “more direct than a response” than she anticipated, adding, “Especially since things are unfolding.”
“To be on the fly, I definitely felt that it was a measured response that was a lot more detailed,” she said.
When asked if criticisms of the Biden-Harris administration’s immigration or foreign policy stance in the Middle East would impact young voters’ support for their reelection in 2024, political analyst and former Obama White House official Alaina Beverly told theGrio, “International issues rarely drive or depress turnout.”
However, she said the administration’s response to the war in Gaza “has the potential to be a firebrand for young voters in 2024.”
Beverly explained, “We are already seeing responses among the progressive members of the Democratic Party in Congress and public demonstrations among young groups like Dream Defenders expressing disapproval over the White House’s standing in solidarity with Israel in as much as it represents an unwillingness to deescalate and urge a ceasefire.
“It could be argued that on the minds of young voters, both issues of the border and the devastation that will continue in the Middle East are tied to the ‘othering’ brown people, whether they’re immigrants seeking asylum from Central America or Palestinians in Gaza,” she added.
Beverly admits that when it comes to aspects of the Biden-Harris administration’s border and immigration policies, the president’s “hands are tied,” like the continued building of former President Donald Trump’s wall at the southern border due to appropriated funds from Congress.
She said she would “encourage” Harris to keep “reminding voters what the administration has done” on immigration and the border crisis. That includes getting at the “root causes of the asylum demand” and establishing “safe mobility” processing center hubs in Central America.
Beverly said the White House is also “urging legal pathways to citizenship, creating waivers to speed up work authorizations for asylum seekers,” adding, “It is Congress’ role to act on more comprehensive humane immigration reform.”
Professor Greer said that while the “Democratic talking point and stance” has long been that Republicans refuse to work with Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform, the party also has to be “honest” about the “nuance.”
“A lot of Democrats don’t like the amount of money that goes toward not just border security, but assisting families who have come to the United States…when we’re dealing with inflation and a possible pending recession,” said Greer.
“There are a lot of Democrats who quietly and not so quietly are wondering, well, why is my circumstance tenuous? Why are my kids not in schools that are adequate, but we have money to give to others?”
She added, “That’s always been the tension and the debate at the heart of trying to figure out immigration.”
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.
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