Kamala Harris Looks to Mend Fences With Latinos

Vice President Kamala Harris is looking to improve her engagement with the Latino community after an uneven first year that included important outreach to key groups and organizations, but also criticism after high-profile missteps.

Axios reported last week that Harris is looking to bring on a veteran Democratic operative to do outreach to Latino groups, as she makes changes to her team ahead of the November elections. This comes after a year in which the Biden administration promised immigration reform, but Congress did not advance the president's comprehensive legislation.

Harris, who was given the role of working with Northern Triangle leaders in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, was panned last June after saying, "I want to be clear to folks in this region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come."

After those comments set off a hailstorm of criticism from Latinos and progressives alike, Harris met with Latino and immigration groups five times over the rest of the summer, including with Biden and Latino civil right leaders on the anniversary of the El Paso hate crime shooting, according to a White House official. She later held Hispanic Heritage Month events in the fall with Latino small business leaders, and spoke at a Voto Latino conference in October about voting rights.

The Harris team may sense an opportunity that could make her an asset with Latino voters during the midterm elections and improve her standing ahead of a wide-open 2024 Democratic presidential field should Biden choose not to seek reelection.

While her end of year approval rating was 32% according to USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll, private polling conducted in November to gauge midterm messaging obtained by Newsweek showed her approval with Latinos sitting at 57% — and substantially higher among Spanish speakers at 69%.

But plans to advance her agenda ran into an unexpected roadblock the day after the Axios report broke, when controversial past tweets from new Harris Communications Director Jamal Simmons surfaced Friday, angering immigration activists and Latino Democrats.

"Just saw 2 undocumented folks talking on MSNBC," Simmons wrote in one tweet over 11 years ago. "One law student the other a protester. Can someone explain why ICE is not picking them up?"

In an apology, Simmons tweeted that he's never advocated for nor believed that Dreamers should be targeted by ICE agents.

He reiterated his longtime support for DACA and comprehensive immigration reform.

"I apologize for offending ppl who care as much as I do about making America the best, multiethnic, diverse democracy," Simmons wrote, adding, "I'll rep the Biden-Harris admin w/ humility, sincerity and respect."

"Frankly, it's depressing ppl can forget about every other thing I've said in public on this bc of bad tweets," he added.

Even before receiving his White House badge, Simmons went to work reaching out to lawmakers and activists to apologize in private phone calls.

One of the people he contacted was influential immigration activist Erika Andiola, a longtime critic of Democratic administrations, who said she accepted his apology.

"Jamal committed to be an ally in his role," Andiola tweeted. "He acknowledged that the tweet was hurtful in the way it was written & explained that his intention was not to call for ICE to pick us up, but to understand the legality of how undocu folks were on TV without possible legal consequences."

Cristina Jimenez, the co-founder of United We Dream, told Newsweek that the Simmons controversy was a "distraction." But she connected the lines between the administration's inability to fulfill campaign promises on immigration to the "don't come" comments from Harris to the hiring of Simmons.

"That's why you're seeing people criticizing the VP's office, asking the question, 'Why would you hire someone who has that track record?'" she said. "It's less about the individual and more about the actions of the VP and lack of action on immigration."

Republicans seized on the reports, with the RNC blasting an email titled "Kamala Harris' Problem With Hispanics," and former Trump advisor Stephen Miller quoting Simmons original tweet, adding "I agree with @JamalSimmons. If you break into our nation there must be deportation."

Maria Cardona, a longtime Democratic strategist, defended Simmons, saying she has known him for 25 years. She said that he would check in with her before talking about immigration and Latino issues on TV, and she would check with him before talking about issues that impact the Black community.

For lack of a better word, she argued, he will be "an honorary Latino" in his White House capacity.

"I know his heart,' Cardona said. "No one will take a backseat to him on advocating for Latinos on every single issue important to us."

The White House declined to give additional details on what Harris is looking for in her Hispanic outreach hire and what the timeframe is for the hire to be made official.

But Newsweek has learned that veteran communications operative Xochitl Hinojosa, a well-respected Latina Democrat, spoke to the Harris team about the communications role and made a positive impression before Simmons was ultimately hired.

"They know they need to do better with the Hispanic community," a source close to the White House told Newsweek.

Latino leaders said they have appreciated the open lines of communication they have to the White House and Vice President Harris, but floated the possibility she could help the White House with another issue that has come up publicly and privately: Latino representation within the administration.

In November, the four Latino U.S. Senators, Bob Menendez, Ben Ray Lujan, Catherine Cortez-Masto and Alex Padilla, sent a private letter to the White House asking for improved representation in White House hiring. Politico reported that Latinos comprise only 10% of White House staff even though they make up 18.5% of the population, while Black staffers were 17% and AAPI staff were 13.4%.

Harris has in the past elevated and hired top Latino staff, with Juan Rodriguez serving as campaign manager on her presidential bid. Julie Chavez-Rodriguez and Emmy Ruiz served in senior roles for her in the past, and are now serving in White House positions with "deputy assistant to the president" titles.

Ben Monterroso, who has worked in Latino communities for four decades and serves as a senior advisor to Poder Latinx, worked with the Harris office in California when she was in the Senate, and said her attention to Latino issues then and now could be described as "consistent."

"Since she became VP I think she has shown a continuation of what she did when she was in the senate, where she was very supportive of Latino issues and hiring high-level Latino and Latina staff," he said.

He added that the "challenge of the immigration issue can put anybody in a difficult position."

A former Harris aide told Newsweek the onus will be on the White House to put the vice president in a better position to succeed during the second year of Biden's presidency and to use her more effectively ahead of the midterm dog fight that awaits Democrats.

"It's important to get into the Latino communities across the states and on the ground because that is when she's most effective," the source said, stressing that they weren't giving the administration a free pass.

"Her staff needs to make a more aggressive effort to ensure she's talking about what she's done," the source added, because "Latinos are watching."

Cardona agreed that there is an opportunity for Harris to lean into her strengths, recasting her role through the lens of what she has accomplished and advocated for years when it comes to Latinos and communities of color.

Harris' personal story, Democrats argue, is part of why she was chosen as Biden's vice presidential nominee in the first place.

"What she has done throughout her life has been sorely missing up until now," Cardona said, "and putting that overlay on everything she does from now on will tell that story better for her."

kamala harris
"What [Kamala Harris] has done throughout her life has been sorely missing up until now," Maria Cardona, a longtime Democratic strategist told Newsweek, "and putting that overlay on everything she does from now on will tell that story better for her." In this photo, then-Democratic U.S. Vice presidential nominee Harris participates in a Latino roundtable event on September 17, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mark Makela/Getty Images