Biden’s Handling of Immigration Marred by Internal Rifts and Policy Reversals

Biden’s Handling of Immigration Marred by Internal Rifts and Policy Reversals

14:28 - Disagreements among top advisers are hampering the administration’s approach to record numbers of migrants at the border

The Biden administration’s immigration policy has been muddled by high-profile reversals and splits within the senior ranks, leaving the government struggling to counter a record number of migrants at the border and reliant on some Trump administration policies that President Biden pledged during his campaign to unwind.

Underlying much of the lack of cohesion is a rift at the highest levels of the administration over the broad direction immigration policy should take, said dozens of current and former administration officials, lawmakers and outside groups familiar with the government’s considerations.

On one side are officials who helped shape Mr. Biden’s campaign message and now occupy several top immigration-policy jobs at the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. Those officials say policies aimed at deterring migrants from crossing the border don’t work and support overhauling the immigration system to resolve requests for asylum faster, give asylum seekers the ability to apply from their home countries and create more legal immigration pathways.

They are backed by members of the Democrats’ progressive wing in Congress and immigration advocacy groups influential in the administration and the party.

On the other side are some senior advisers to the president and career border-enforcement officials who in an effort to manage record border apprehensions favor deterrence strategies, including ramping up deportations and putting pressure on Mexico to step up enforcement, saying the administration needs to reduce arrests before tackling long-term changes. They include White House chief of staff Ron Klain, national security adviser Jake Sullivan, senior adviser Cedric Richmond and Susan Rice, domestic policy adviser.

Some of those top advisers have also expressed concern in meetings that record-high illegal border crossings damage the president’s standing with moderate voters, people familiar with the matter said. Arrests at the southern border in fiscal year 2021 hit about 1.66 million, the highest annual number ever.

The lack of cohesion and mixed messages have persisted across several major immigration debates, including the handling of Haitians who arrived en masse at the southern border this summer, the number of global refugees the U.S. should accept and how to treat asylum seekers.

Some Democrats have been sharply critical of the administration’s record on immigration, an issue that Republicans also plan to highlight in next year’s midterm elections. Recent polls show Mr. Biden’s approval ratings for his handling of immigration are lower than for many other issues.

“When you are running from one moment to another, and making policy on the fly, that’s a recipe for disaster,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.).

Several high-ranking immigration officials at the White House, Homeland Security and the State Department have resigned.

“Every single member of this administration, from the president on down, is committed and laser focused to building a fair and orderly immigration system,” said Vedant Patel, a White House spokesman.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been tasked by Mr. Biden with addressing the root causes of migration from certain Central American countries, said in an ABC interview Thursday that fixing the immigration system would take time.

“We can’t just flip a switch and make it better,” Ms. Harris said. “The reality is that we inherited a system, an immigration system that was deeply broken, and it’s requiring us to actually put it back together in terms of creating a fair process that is effective and efficient.”

Prolonged administration debates over whether to deport Haitian migrants were especially fractious, officials and others familiar with the matter said.

Internal intelligence reports early in the year showed that Haitians, who had been living for years in South America, were on the move toward the U.S. border. Some advisers as early as the spring argued in favor of deportations to Haiti, saying that even a few flights to the Caribbean nation would prevent larger numbers of Haitians from attempting to cross the border.

Others countered that the country was too unstable to receive migrants and pushed instead for all Haitians present in the U.S. illegally to be shielded from deportation through a mechanism known as Temporary Protected Status, as Mr. Biden had said he would provide for Haitians during the campaign.

Ultimately, officials decided to follow two tracks: Haitians in the U.S. illegally before July 29 were allowed to stay, but new arrivals could be deported.

In August, as intelligence reports showed large groups of Haitian migrants in southern Mexico preparing to move north, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement planned to deport about 600 Haitians who had recently crossed the border.

Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary, signed off on the deportations, people familiar with the matter said. But he reversed the decision and ordered them released after immigration advocates flagged that the migrants were eligible for deportation protection since they arrived before July 29, the people said. Spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa said DHS encourages differences of opinion “as a hallmark of good ideas and good government.”

News of their release spread on Haitian social media. A month later, about 30,000 Haitians crossed the border near Del Rio, Texas, with thousands crowded under a bridge. Those later arrivals, who didn’t qualify for the temporary deportation relief, were subject to a large-scale deportation campaign. The U.S. sent 58 deportation flights to Haiti in September, up from two the previous month, according to public flight tracking data.

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