Breaking with Trump, Biden doesn't have an immigration czar. Is it a 'vacuum'?

  • In Politics
  • 2021-09-24 09:00:12Z

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden broke from Donald Trump's immigration approach when he took office, reversing many of his policies and promising more humane treatment of migrants seeking refuge at the southern border.

Unlike the Trump administration, Biden doesn't have an immigration czar - a top official like Stephen Miller, the architect of some of the prior president's most uncompromising policies. Instead, he assigned immigration duties to a group of officials across the federal government, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

A string of crises is adding immense pressure to Biden's strategy. Migrants, many from Central America, descended on the border in record-setting numbers this year, sending the administration scrambling to house them during the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, thousands of Haitians took shelter under a bridge at the Texas border, a tense situation that stirred outrage when video captured horse-mounted border agents chasing migrants near the Rio Grande.

Signs of discord within the Biden administration emerged Thursday when Daniel Foote, the special envoy to Haiti, resigned over what he called the "inhumane" expulsions of migrants. Biden, Harris and Mayorkas voiced strong disapproval of the border agents' actions.

Migrant advocacy groups said the structure built around an array of immigration decision-makers can lead to mixed messaging, confusion and a slower policy process, leaving Biden far short of his lofty promises to remake the system for the 21st century.

"There's this vacuum of information from the administration that can sometimes be filled by misinformation," said Robyn Barnard, senior advocacy counsel for refugee protection at Human Rights First.

Frustration with the administration has turned to anger over U.S. border agents' treatment of Haitian migrants.

"We think we're at an inflection point with the administration," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

"We're ready to partner with them on what the way forward is," Hincapié said. "But we also need to know that they understand that this was a step too far and that they absolutely need to shift gears and return back to the president's vision for what he was elected for."

The administration's response to migrants is not in line with the values Biden laid out at the beginning of his presidency, said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of Immigration Hub, an immigration rights organization.

"He laid out a bold and comprehensive strategy on immigration coming into office that included rolling back the Trump policies, of which there were many, and also building new policies and a new immigration system that is more fair, humane and orderly," Gonzales said. "That being said, this moment at the border is not representative of that vision, is not representative of those values or our values. This is why we feel very strongly that the administration has to change course in the way that it is handling the refugees currently on our border."

'Shockingly hard line': Criticized from all sides, Biden scrambles to address surge of Haitian migrants at southern border

'We can't turn back': Haitian migrants face massive expulsion amid crackdown at US-Mexico border

Haitian migrants cross the Rio Grande south into Ciudad Acuna from Del Rio, Texas, as they leave the migrant encampment underneath the Del Rio International Bridge after concerns of food scarcity and expulsions to Haiti on Monday Sept.
Haitian migrants cross the Rio Grande south into Ciudad Acuna from Del Rio, Texas, as they leave the migrant encampment underneath the Del Rio International Bridge after concerns of food scarcity and expulsions to Haiti on Monday Sept.  

Who shapes Biden's immigration policy?

The White House immigration portfolio stretches across several agencies, according to an administration official, who pointed out that it's an intersectional issue involving several officials within the federal government.

Harris is charged with addressing the root causes of migration, and Mayorkas focuses on border security. The Domestic Policy Council's Susan Rice, Esther Olavarria and Tyler Moran also play a role in shaping policy.

Homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall and deputy homeland security adviser Joshua Geltzer are involved. Cedric Richmond of the Office of Public Engagement works with outside advocacy groups.

White House officials emphasize that rebuilding and bringing order to a strained U.S. immigration system, exacerbated by record migration, has been made more difficult because of Trump-era policies that focused on dismantling it over the past four years.

"We could not see it as any more different from the policy of the prior administration," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday, calling Trump's policy "inhumane and immoral."

Psaki said the Trump administration's approach created "dysfunction" and "led to a very broken system that we're dealing with today."

Several members of Biden's team have criticized Border Patrol agents' treatment of Haitian migrants. Harris raised "grave concerns" with Mayorkas, according to a readout of the pair's call from Harris' spokeswoman Symone Sanders.

Harris told Mayorkas that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents need "to treat people with dignity, humanely and consistent with our laws and our values."

Mayorkas said Tuesday he was "horrified" by images of border agents on horseback aggressively confronting Haitian migrants, marking a shift from a day earlier when he tried to play down the incident. The homeland security secretary launched an investigation into the matter.

The administration conceded it did not have intelligence that suggested there would be a surge of Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border, homeland security officials said during a briefing Thursday.

The officials noted that one of the problems was a lack of knowledge of the scale of the smuggling networks that organized the Haitians' arrival at the border and that they are investigating the individuals associated with that network.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy organization, said the administration is grappling with a broken immigration system exacerbated by Trump's hard-line policies.

"The good ideas that this administration has have been thwarted largely by events on the ground and a system that has not been reimagined and built anew," he said. "I just think that they are struggling from going from challenge to challenge from situation to situation."

The administration has tried to unwind Trump policies such as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which returned asylum seekers and migrants to the Mexico to wait for U.S. immigration court proceedings. Biden has kept a public health policy from the Trump era: Title 42.

Title 42 allows Customs and Border Protection officials to expel undocumented migrants to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Immigration activists and some Democrats called on Biden to end the policy, and a federal judge ruled against the administration's use of the public health rule last week.

"The administration says that they want to be more humane and welcoming to migrants and asylum seekers," Barnard said. "But then their actions are kind of contradictory in that they keep fighting court orders that say you have to stop using Title 42."

Biden's collaborative approach has made it difficult to get information, Barnard said. Questions about Title 42, for example, are usually referred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency that extended Title 42.

"The decision to continue to use this order and the way it's been used is at the White House's direction," Barnard said. "And they could end it."

Border crossing: Satellite images show Haitian refugees massing at US-Mexico border

What we know: 600 more homeland security agents sent to Del Rio, Texas, amid Haitian migrant crisis: What we know

The US vs. smugglers

Some of the difficulties the administration has consistently faced are caused by the information criminal organizations, such as smugglers, give migrants coming to the USA, said former Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, who served as Biden's coordinator for the southwest border during the first 100 days of his administration.

"The criminal organizations, to be quite honest, are always going to be more agile in responding to circumstances than our government," Jacobson said. "So we in the U.S. government, I say that no longer being in the government, but in the U.S. government, they are often playing catch-up."

Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said that during her time in the administration, she explicitly told migrants not to come to the USA, something the administration has continued to stress.

The United States has tried to combat the message from smugglers, called "coyotes," who tell migrants that they can come to the USA, she said. Often, similar guidance comes from friends or families or others in migrant communities who successfully made it across the border.

"The U.S. has to change its messaging and has to try and convey what's really happening, usually weeks behind when the criminal organizations may have first gotten the message out," she said. "So the messaging part of this is critical, but it's always going to lag."

Jacobson, who is now a senior adviser to the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global consulting group, said she believes the United States would send a stronger message if it showed people that if they come to the border, they will be deported.

The administration has often touted using a "whole of government" approach to carry out its agenda, including immigration policy. That could cause results to happen at a slower pace, Jacobson said.

"On pure efficiency grounds, putting one person in charge of your policy and letting him dictate to every other agency of the U.S. government exactly what will be done is super efficient, right?" she said. "But it doesn't mean that you end up with good policy."

Taking a collaborative approach to immigration "isn't necessarily as fast as what the Trump administration did, but it results in better policy," she said. "It's less efficient at times, but it results in better and frankly, I think, ultimately more sustainable policy when you have the agencies involved, including experts on the subjects, in making the decisions."

Democrats have been critical of the administration's treatment of the Haitian migrants.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the administration's decision to send Haitian asylum seekers back to their country "defies common sense."

"What the hell are we doing here?" Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said during a news conference Wednesday in response to images of horseback patrols pursuing Haitians. "What we witnessed takes us back hundreds of years. What we witnessed was worse than what we witnessed in slavery."

Asked about Democratic criticism of the policy, Psaki said the administration is trying to "explain what our policy and our process is and reiterate to everyone that our objective is not to keep the policy as it is."

She said although the process is "not workable long term" and the administration's goal is to put in place a humane immigration policy, "it is our objective to continue to implement what is law and what our laws are, and that includes border restrictions."

Rebecca Morin, Michael Collins and Courtney Subramanian cover the White House. Follow Morin on Twitter @RebeccaMorin_, Collins @mcollinsNEWS and Subramanian at @cmsub.

Del Rio migrant crisis: How did so many Haitians end up at the southern US border?

Migrant surge: US closes part of Texas border at Del Rio, begins flying Haitians home

'We hope the US can help us': Haitian migrants in Texas wait on border, seeking asylum

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Haitian migrant crisis: Biden immigration approach tested by surge


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