In August, when a report on the proposal emerged, top White House officials, including chief of staff Ron Klain, tried to seek reassurance that in fact the plan wasn’t happening.
Klain and Susan Rice, one of President Joe Biden’s top aides, shot down the proposal — intended to address public health concerns — because they thought it would encourage more people to come to the US, sources tell CNN.
Migrants being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and minors in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services were already being offered vaccinations. But the proposal — reported in The Washington Post last summer — would apply to migrants encountered at the US southern border and released in the US as they await court hearings.
The plan, which originated at the Department of Homeland Security, is before the White House again, but no decision has been made, according to a senior administration official.
A White House spokesperson disputed the account about Klain and Rice, saying that “a decision on vaccinations for migrants had not been made at the time, just as a decision hasn’t been made right now.”
“We have put in place public health protocols that prioritize the health of border communities, agents and migrants. We are always evaluating potential updates to the protocols,” the spokesperson said.
Biden administration officials are trying to reset and resurface plans to rework how the US handles migrants at the US-Mexico border, following a year of record arrests and fierce political backlash. But the issues and political concerns that vexed the administration over the last year are likely to persist.
Biden outlined ambitious goals during his first days in office to repeal the hardline policies of his predecessor, overhaul the US immigration system and create a better, more humane system at the southern border. And his administration has made inroads on several fronts. The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, recorded nearly 300 executive actions taken on immigration as of January 19, 2022.
The US-Mexico border, though, often gains the most attention, and there the administration has juggled executing on progressive objectives with worrying over optics as Republicans seized on the issue as an example of poor management.
In recognition of increased migration to the US, Biden tapped Vice President Kamala Harris, who’s expected to travel to Honduras next week, to address the root causes of migration — an intractable issue that’s dogged administrations for years and takes time to yield results.
Internally, the back-and-forth pits camps of officials against each other: those who wanted to take a more progressive position and others operating under a model of deterring migrants, which has long been a US position.
A slew of Biden appointees who had been heralded by immigrant advocates and assigned to immigration have departed — or plan to depart — the administration, including figures like Andrea Flores, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who’s since joined New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez’s office, Tyler Moran and Esther Olavarria, who’s retiring.
One source familiar with internal discussions described the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied children just weeks into Biden’s presidency as a “big political bruise” that stalled plans to overhaul the system at the border. Instead, as border arrests climbed, discussions about the return of a Trump-era border policy requiring non-Mexican migrants to stay in Mexico — a program condemned by Biden on the campaign trail — began to ramp up inside the White House, the source said. A lower court later required the policy’s revival.
Administration officials have conceded that progress on building out a new system on the US-Mexico border has been a challenge.
“There is still significant work underway. It has been a challenge. It has been frustrating to all of us inside and personally to me,” Olavarria, the White House’s deputy director for immigration, said during a Migration Policy Institute event this week, citing in part the unprecedented surge of migrant minors early in the administration.
“There’s much more that we need to be doing and could be doing,” she added. “The building blocks for that are also underway.”
The whiplash of the last year, sources say, stems in part from record border apprehensions, which are often used as a barometer of success for administrations. The growing number of migrants at the US-Mexico border, which is reflected in border arrest figures, angered Klain, according to the source, who called meetings on the matter with the chief of staff tense.
A White House spokesperson said “no one was angered,” adding that the administration knows irregular migration is a challenge.
The spokesperson also maintained the administration is committed “to building a fair, humane and lawful immigration system” and providing access to asylum and other legal migration pathways to those seeking protection.
A senior administration official told CNN that officials are now weighing proposals to chart a new path on the US-Mexico border, focusing on the use of new technologies to make asylum more accessible and evaluating models used by the United Nations to receive migrants. But that remains contingent on the end of a Trump-era public health order that has effectively barred migrants from seeking asylum — an authority the Biden Justice Department defended in court Wednesday. Administration officials say they’re focused on developing a plan for when that happens.
A hemispheric challenge
Previous administrations have similarly faced challenges on the US southern border as conditions in the Western Hemisphere have deteriorated. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated those conditions, forcing the Biden administration to contend with even larger number of migrants — many of whom are claiming asylum — at the border.
“The way the President views this is that we are facing something historic in the Western Hemisphere. We’ve never seen displacement at this scale,” another senior administration told CNN.
A recent report from the International Organization for Migration, part of the United Nations, found that the pandemic impacted migration from Central and South America, spurring movement across the region. Data collected by US Customs and Border Protection also revealed an increase of South Americans crossing the US-Mexico border.
Biden acknowledged the state of the region during a nearly two-hour news conference Wednesday, saying he’s in contact with the leaders of the countries in South America and working closely with them “to deal with helping the countries in question.” He also nodded to the plight of people who choose to leave their home countries.
“People leave because they have real problems,” he said.
Harris, meanwhile, has announced private investments in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and administration officials are considering a potential regional compact spanning countries in Central and South America to promote coordination on stemming the flow of migration and work to stabilize the region.
But the results of those initiatives take time, leaving the focus on the border.
The senior administration official maintained that improving asylum at the US southern border remains a “top priority” for Biden.
“We want to create a system that’s quick, that’s transparent, that people can register and have an appointment quickly and have their claims heard. Easier said than done, but that’s the goal,” the official said, referring to asylum claims.
“If we were to create something that makes sense, that people know how to access it, that they don’t have to wait in line for very long, we think that would be more attractive to many people than crossing through the desert,” the official said, adding that there’s a lot of planning going on behind the scenes to bring that to fruition, including also entertaining reception models like those used by the United Nations abroad.
A regulation initially proposed last year that provides asylum officers more authority by allowing them to hear and decide claims is also expected soon, according to Olavarria. The rule would overhaul the asylum system in an attempt to settle claims faster and help alleviate the immigration court backlog. Immigration judges currently decide asylum claims.
First, however, comes winding down a public health authority, known as Title 42, that allows the expulsion of migrants encountered at the border and effectively bars asylum. The White House has declined to say when that might end, punting to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And on Wednesday, the Biden administration defended the use of the authority — which has resulted in more than 1 million expulsions of migrants — in court.
Wednesday’s oral arguments before a federal appeals court put into focus the border conundrum facing the administration: trying to defend a controversial policy that pushes people back into Mexico, while recognizing the dangers of doing so in another lawsuit.
Judge Justin Walker cited what he called a “self-contradiction,” noting that in a case concerning the Trump-era “remain in Mexico” policy, which forces non-Mexican migrants to stay in Mexico until their US court dates, the Justice Department says migrants face persecution, abuse and other harms. (The Biden administration tried to terminate the program, but a court order required it to be re-implemented.) But in the Title 42 case, the Justice Department defended expelling migrants to Mexico.
“What are we supposed to do with this?” Walker asked the Justice Department attorney.
Immigrant advocates and Democratic lawmakers have posed similar questions to the administration. Revamping systems at the US-Mexico border, though, will likely require additional funds and as a result, sign-off from Congress, where both parties have been deeply divided on immigration and are unlikely to come to a consensus on an overhaul during an election year.
“Throughout President Biden’s first year in office, his administration has taken some critical actions to fix our broken immigration system,” Menendez said in a statement, adding that more needs to be done to reverse Trump policies on the border.
“In 2022, when immigration policy and border management will be focal points of national debate, the Biden-Harris administration cannot run away from immigration policy,” he added.