Division among Biden appointees led U.S. to embrace Trump-era border policies

In early July, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) drafted a comprehensive nine-page plan to stop using a Trump-era pandemic policy to rapidly expel migrant families with children, according to internal government documents obtained by CBS News.

But the plan was shelved after senior White House and DHS officials expressed concern about the risks of unwinding the expulsion policy, known as Title 42, when arrests of migrants had spiked to a 21-year high and the Delta variant of the coronavirus was spreading rapidly.

Instead, the Biden administration issued its own order defending the use of Title 42, which was first invoked by the Trump administration in March 2020 over the objections of some Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials. Since July, U.S. immigration officials have used Title 42 to expel more than 44,000 migrant parents and children traveling as families without allowing them to request humanitarian protection.

“We are in this very weird place where we’re implementing Title 42 more strongly than the Trump administration did,” a Biden appointee who requested anonymity to speak freely told CBS News.

The internal split around Title 42 is part of broader divisions within the Biden administration over border policy that have boiled over amid record numbers of migrant apprehensions, four people with direct knowledge of the infighting told CBS News.

Some administration officials “don’t want to see folks ever removed,” another Biden appointee said. “That’s not where President Biden is. That’s not where the mainstream Democratic Party is.”

The disagreements between some of President’s Biden appointees who have pushed for tougher enforcement, including increased deportations, and others who support expanding access to the asylum system have hindered the administration’s policy objectives, the people involved in the discussions said.

“From the very beginning, there have been battles within the administration about how to handle the border between those who are more progressive and those who are more enforcement-minded on the issue,” one person said. “These battles have led to paralysis, which has allowed things to get worse in several ways.”

“We’re not making any progress,” said another person with direct knowledge of the disagreements, citing “so much division” among Mr. Biden’s appointees.

Starting later this month, the Biden administration could find itself implementing the most sweeping border restrictions instituted under former President Donald Trump: the Title 42 expulsions and a program that requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are reviewed by U.S. courts.

“Politics trumps policy”

Susan Rice, Mr. Biden’s top domestic policy adviser, and other senior officials have argued Title 42 is needed to protect border communities from COVID-19, avert mass releases of migrant adults and lessen the political pressure from high levels of border arrests, three people familiar with the deliberations said.

But other Biden appointees believe the continued implementation of Title 42 is largely based on optics — that it’s staying in place because of concerns that ending it will fuel perceptions of a chaotic border.

“At the end of the day, politics trumps policy. And the politics of having high numbers at the border is what has won out,” one Biden appointee familiar with the infighting said.

Under the internal July plan to wind down Title 42, all migrant families would be screened for asylum or placed in expedited deportation proceedings. Officials proposed obtaining more ankle bracelets to monitor families released from U.S. custody and offering COVID-19 vaccines to all adult family members, which has yet to occur.

Given the crises facing Haiti, some Biden appointees were horrified by the decision to expel 8,000 Haitians after thousands of migrants arrived in Del Rio, Texas, in September. But senior officials, including Rice and Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, greenlighted the deportation blitz, believing it would deter other Haitians from coming, people familiar with the matter said.

An August court order requires the administration to reinstate the Trump-era Remain in Mexico program, a prospect that has alarmed advocates, who say the program made asylum-seekers easy prey for kidnappers and violent cartels.

But Biden appointees at DHS and the National Security Council had already proposed reviving the policy months earlier, in the spring, according to four people familiar with the plan.

Reviving Remain in Mexico, the people said, was presented as a deterrence tool. Some officials believed the policy could be applied in a way that afforded greater due process and safety to asylum seekers — changes the Biden administration has said it is currently working on.

But other officials opposed reinstating a policy that Mr. Biden himself had denounced as inhumane. “Because it had been a tool that was misused by Trump, the opportunity to try to improve it was not going to be politically viable,” one Biden appointee said.

Still, the program’s reinstatement was again considered at a high level over the summer, when border arrests skyrocketed.

The administration last Friday issued a memo to try to end the Remain in Mexico a second time — but it won’t take effect unless the August ruling is lifted. In his memo, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas condemned the policy’s “unjustifiable human costs.”

“This administration got hammered because of the numbers. If they put in place a policy that lowers the numbers, I think it’s going to be really hard to roll it back,” another Biden appointee said of Remain in Mexico.

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Camilo Montoya-Galvez