WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden was livid.
He had been in office only two months at the time, and there was already a crisis at the southwest border. Thousands of migrant children were jammed into unsanitary Border Patrol stations. Republicans were accusing Biden of flinging open the borders. And his aides were blaming one another.
Biden came into office promising to dismantle what he described as the inhumane immigration policies of former President Donald Trump. But for much of Biden’s presidency so far, the White House has been divided by furious debates over how — and whether — to proceed in the face of a surge of migrants crossing the southwest border.
Senior aides have been battling one another over how quickly to roll back the most restrictive policies and what kind of system would best replace them.
Now Biden finds himself the target of attacks from all sides: Immigration activists accuse him of failing to prioritize the human rights of millions of immigrants. Conservatives have pointed to surges of migrants at the border as evidence that the president is weak and ineffective. And some moderate Democrats now fear that lifting Trump-era border restrictions could hurt them politically.
This account of the Biden administration’s handling of the border over the past 15 months is based on interviews with 20 current and former officials, lawmakers and activists, most of whom requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
Biden came into office with high hopes, saying he wanted a system that would allow the United States to determine, in a more compassionate way, which migrants should be allowed to stay in the country. He recruited a team of immigration advocates and others eager to put in place the humane system they had envisioned for years. But the slow pace of change has left some of Biden’s longtime allies doubting his commitment and wondering whether he is more interested in keeping the highly charged issue from dominating his presidency.
Virtually all of the aides who came on board early in the administration have left the White House, frustrated by what they describe as repeated fights with some of the president’s most senior advisers over whether to lift Trump-era policies. Even some of Biden’s more enforcement-minded aides have departed.
Debates and clashes
Ron Klain issued a warning to his staff last summer.
Klain, the White House chief of staff, gathered senior aides, including Susan Rice, the president’s domestic policy adviser; Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the homeland security adviser; and Amy Pope, the top migration adviser. Klain told them they needed to make sure the administration was not pandering to people who wanted an immediate end to Trump-era border restrictions.
If they did not find a way to deter soaring illegal crossings at the southwest border, he said, accusations about border chaos would grow worse, anger moderate voters and potentially sink the party during the 2022 midterms.
As border crossings increased, disagreements erupted over how quickly to dismantle Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and what to replace them with.
Record numbers of migrants, including people driven out of their homes in Central America by the economic effects of the pandemic, gangs and natural disasters, surged to the border last summer, in part enticed by Biden’s promise of a less harsh approach to immigration than that of his predecessor. About 214,000 migrants were taken into custody in July 2021 — the first time that many people had been apprehended in a single month in more than two decades.
Biden has taken a series of actions to reverse his predecessor’s policies. He halted construction of the border wall, created a task force to reunite families separated at the border and reversed Trump’s ban on considering domestic violence or gang violence as a basis for asylum. He also proposed sweeping legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, though it has stalled in Congress.
Despite those actions, the infighting among the president’s aides continued.
Xavier Becerra, the secretary of health and human services, whose department runs shelters for migrant children, said the Department of Homeland Security needed to be more aggressive in turning away older teenagers, which would have changed Biden’s policy of letting all unaccompanied migrant children into the country. Rice repeatedly said Becerra should provide more shelters. Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, said the Department of Health and Human Services needed to move the children more quickly out of overcrowded Border Patrol stations.
For months, aides clashed over an effort intended to speed up consideration of asylum cases at the border by allowing immigration officers to decide the claims rather than overburdened judges.
Some of the former immigration advocates in the West Wing, including Rice’s deputy for immigration, Esther Olavarria, worried that rushing through the new process would limit due process for migrants. Rice, Klain and others argued that processing claims faster — and swiftly deporting migrants who fail to win asylum — was an important way to ease the burden on the system and deter illegal crossings.
Biden grew annoyed by the delays in putting the asylum changes into practice. In meetings on immigration with his top aides, he often asked what resources and funding the team of former advocates and immigration veterans needed for the policy.
The administration did not release the final language for the new policy until last month. And because of staffing and funding issues, the plan will be rolled out slowly and not in time to offer significant help with the expected spike in migrants seeking asylum later this spring.
One of the most fraught debates inside the West Wing over the last year has been what to do about Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forced migrants seeking asylum to wait south of the border until their cases were decided. Human rights advocates assailed the conditions in Mexico, where migrants often stayed in squalid camps.
As a candidate, Biden had condemned the program. Once in office, he quickly terminated it. But it was one program that had been effective at keeping some migrants out of border detention facilities.
Tensions and departures
The internal battles over immigration have not been limited to the immigration agencies.
In a meeting last summer, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Biden’s top aides it was not clear there was still a public health rationale for keeping the border shut to most migrants.
The Trump administration had seized on Title 42 of the public health code to justify turning away most migrants at the border. When Biden took office, he said he would not apply the policy to unaccompanied minors, a change from the prior administration. In practice, many families were also let into the United States despite the policy.
Privately, Rice, Klain and others were worried lifting the restriction would invite even more migrants to the southwest border. White House officials also argued Title 42 was needed to prevent the spread of the disease along the border.
White House aides also clashed over whether to vaccinate migrants who were let into the United States. Last summer, a plan to administer the coronavirus vaccine was blocked by Rice and others, who feared it would encourage more migrants to swarm toward the border seeking a shot, which was the last thing some advisers — Rice in particular — wanted.
The fighting inside the administration took a toll on the staff.
In January, Olavarria, a veteran of decades of immigration debates in Washington and a fierce advocate for migrants, left her job as Rice’s deputy for immigration. Tyler Moran, Biden’s former senior adviser for migration, who had worked on immigration policy for President Barack Obama and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, also left. Andrea Flores resigned as director for border management at the National Security Council in fall 2021.
Two longtime immigration experts who had agreed to short-term assignments — Pope, a former Obama administration official, and Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico — left after a few months. An official at the Department of Homeland Security, David Shahoulian, who served as the go-between with the White House, left in September.
The CDC finally announced at the beginning of April it would lift its public health border restrictions May 23, around the time of the year when migration typically increases.
But this month, the issue of Title 42 flared up again as Republicans and some Democrats in Congress held up COVID funding in an effort to protest the administration’s decision to lift the health rule.