Biden’s border woes expose White House divisions as centrists assert more control

Illegal border crossings and coronavirus cases were both rising this summer when a group of Biden administration officials developed a plan to vaccinate migrants in U.S. custody, viewing the shots as a sensible public health measure.

But just before the plan was rolled out, it was opposed by one of President Biden’s top aides, Susan Rice, and other senior officials who worried that it would invite more illegal crossings. Some aides responded that migrants would not pay smugglers and take a dangerous journey just for a vaccine — but they were overruled, according to four people with knowledge of the reversal.

The episode reflects the fractures spreading in the White House over Biden’s immigration policies and his dismal ratings on U.S.-Mexico border issues. Several top aides want tougher enforcement measures and the president’s team is gripped with fear that any misstep could trigger a new crisis, according to seven current and former Biden officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal tensions.

A major policy shift or purge is not imminent, these officials say, but the national security centrists on Biden’s team have asserted more control, and the left-leaning advisers who pushed to quickly reverse President Donald Trump’s policies have lost ground.

The change is evident in several recent moves. The administration is expanding its enforcement partnership with Mexican authorities. It is adamantly defending the Title 42 health code used to “expel” border crossers. It aggressively used deportation flights to send nearly 8,000 Haitians back to their destitute homeland.

“There’s been a shift,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), who has been urging Biden to tighten enforcement for months. “Some of it pushed by the courts. Some of it pushed by reality at the border.”

Amid Democrats’ electoral setbacks last week in Virginia and New Jersey, some voters expressed a sense that Biden was not taking charge of events, putting greater pressure on White House aides to avoid further scenes of chaos at the border.

Several top immigration advisers have come to the White House only to leave quickly, including Roberta Jacobson, Amy Pope and Alida Garcia.

More recently, a group of Biden aides more attuned to national security and less sensitive to the activist community has begun asserting control over immigration, according to five current and former administration officials. They include Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser; Liz Sherwood-Randall, his homeland security adviser; Rice; and White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who has dialed back his involvement since late summer but still relies on these and other officials, according to one person familiar with the dynamic.

These advisers view the border “almost entirely from a political lens,” said one Biden appointee who is sour on the administration’s pro-enforcement shift.

White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre played down the divisions and said officials are results-oriented, telling reporters the entire staff has one goal: “Every single member of this administration, from the president on down, is committed to building a fair and orderly immigration system.”

Another figure with growing clout in the enforcement debate is Jennifer Sokoler, a White House attorney and former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor who had little experience in immigration policy before joining the administration, two colleagues said. A White House official said Sokoler’s role is to ensure that Biden policies are lawful.

Biden’s plight is striking in part because the administration took office with sweeping promises to put immigration on a moral footing after a Trump approach that many Democrats saw as cruel and racist, from his push to build a border wall to his promise to ban Muslim immigrants to his reference to “shithole” countries.

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Nick Miroff and Sean Sullivan