Vice President Kamala Harris calls on Texans to protect reproductive and voting rights during Austin visit

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks on abortion rights with Mini Timmaraju, President of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Julieta Garibay, Senior Capacity Building Director for Groundswell Fund, at the LBJ Museum in Austin on Oct. 8, 2022. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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Vice President Kamala Harris on Saturday called Texas’ abortion ban “immoral” and urged Texans to protect reproductive rights when considering their choices in the upcoming November elections.

“A democracy will be as strong as our willingness to fight for it,” she said during a discussion on reproductive rights at the LBJ Presidential Library on the University of Texas at Austin campus, part of a daylong trip that ended with an appearance at a downtown fundraiser for Texas Democrats.

While Harris stressed the importance of voting not only for a governor and attorney general who support reproductive rights, she also noted that local elections were crucial, especially when it comes to choosing a prosecutor. District attorneys will now have to decide whether to prosecute Texas doctors and health care workers if they perform an abortion not meant to save the life of the pregnant patient.

Performing an abortion in Texas is now a felony punishable by up to life in prison. The new state law, which has only narrow exceptions to save the life of a pregnant person, went into effect in August, two months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The law has forced Texans to seek abortions in other states.

“It’s going to matter who your county prosecutor is if you live in a place where there’s a state law that has criminalized doctors and nurses and health care providers,” Harris said.

Harris said the U.S. Department of Justice is working with state attorneys general to ensure Americans have a right to travel, but “not the one in Texas,” she said, referring to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

At the fundraiser, Harris endorsed Beto O’Rourke for governor and highlighted for the audience some of the Biden administration’s achievements: distributing pandemic relief; passing the Inflation Reduction Act, which caps drug prices for Medicare recipients; passing a hefty infrastructure bill; and making historic strides to address the climate change crisis.

But she also spent a lot of her address discussing the U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer in the Dobbs v. Jackson case, which overturned Roe v. Wade.

“The United States Supreme Court just took a constitutional right that had been recognized from the people of America, from the women of America,” Harris said. “While extremists — so-called leaders — trumpet the rhetoric of freedom, they attack the very foundations of freedom.”

She blamed Texas’ elected GOP leaders for removing women’s freedoms, calling them “the ones passing laws making it difficult for people in the states to vote.”

Harris added, “One of those people is the governor of this very state.” Even before the Dobbs decision, she said, Gov. Greg Abbott and other leaders passed some of the “most radical, most anti-women laws in the country.”

Harris warned that overturning Roe was just a first step for Republicans.

“Where do we think this is heading?” Harris asked the crowd. “Justice Clarence Thomas said the quiet part out loud. Contraception is on the line. Marriage equality is on the line. With Republican party leaders in charge, health care is on the line.”

One topic noticeably absent from her visit was immigration.

Shortly after Biden took office, he assigned Harris the responsibility of immigration. In June 2021, Harris she traveled to Guatemala and Mexico, a trip she said was an effort to tackle the root causes of illegal immigration. A few weeks after that trip, she visited Border Patrol facilities in El Paso and met with migrant aid groups, but the vice president has not yet visited the Rio Grande Valley, where a large number of border apprehensions are happening.

Predictably, Harris’ visit drew barbs from Texas Republicans, including Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who have criticized the federal government’s stance regarding the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Texans have been forced to bear the consequences of this Administration’s failure to address the border crisis, including the historic number of illegal crossings as well as the tragic rise in migrant deaths, drug smuggling, fentanyl overdoses, and cartel violence,” Cornyn said in a statement Friday. “Unfortunately, the Administration’s Border Czar hasn’t seen the epicenter of their self-inflicted crisis firsthand, which has overwhelmed our border communities and law enforcement.”

Cornyn’s jab at Harris came after Cruz put pressure on the Biden administration on immigration, threatening Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas with impeachment for “dereliction of duty” at the southern border in a letter to the department Thursday.

Federal immigration agents have recorded 2.1 million encounters at the Southwest border — a record number — in the first 11 months of fiscal year 2022, which ended Sept. 30. That’s a 24% increase from the entire previous fiscal year. Of those, more than half occurred at the Texas-Mexico border, where agents recorded 1.2 million encounters during the first 11 months of fiscal year 2022.

Those numbers include repeat border crossings by individuals who made more than one attempt. And those repeat crossings have helped drive the number of encounters higher.

In March 2020, the Trump administration invoked an emergency health order known as Title 42, which immigration agents have used to immediately send back to Mexico many people trying to cross the border, including asylum-seekers, without having to file charges and wait on the formal deportation process.

Immigration agents record a person attempting to cross more than once during the same fiscal year as a new encounter. The latest recidivism rate available shows that it’s at 27%, the highest it’s been since fiscal year 2015.

Reporter Uriel J. García contributed to this story.

Disclosure: The LBJ Presidential Library and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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