Infighting within the Biden administration over the onslaught of challenges facing officials has, at times, stalled decision making on key issues, frustrating officials, sources tell CNN.
This week, two senior DHS officials announced their resignations: Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ chief of staff, Karen Olick, and assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, David Shahoulian. Olick cited another undisclosed opportunity, while Shahoulian attributed his departure to personal reasons, according to sources familiar with the departures.
While it’s unclear whether additional factors played a role in their departures, tensions have bubbled up in recent months as the Department of Homeland Security finds itself at the center of some of the country’s most pressing issues, such as managing the influx of migrants at the US-Mexico, and more recently, serving as the lead coordinating agency in the effort to resettle more than 60,000 Afghans in the US.
“They’ve been operating in crisis mode since day one and now there’s another crisis layered on top of everything else,” one source told CNN of DHS.
“There’s a sense of tiredness,” an administration official told CNN. “They’re paralyzed by the bureaucracy,” the official added of the decision-making process.
On immigration, there’s been disagreement among moderates and progressives within the administration about how to address migrants at the border, leaving little room for solutions or decisions, according to three sources familiar with discussions.
Mayorkas, who’s previously worked at DHS in different capacities, is described as heavily involved in the policy-making process, often diving into the nuts and bolts. Under his tenure, there have been changes, such as closing some detention centers and releasing a proposed asylum regulation. But a final version of Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidance dictating which immigrants should be prioritized for arrest — expected over the summer — is still pending.
“We are proud of the many impactful and meaningful policies we have developed and implemented. We have ended the cruelty of the past administration and we have built new and restored other humane, orderly, and legal paths,” a Homeland Security spokesperson told CNN in a statement, adding that the department is executing its plans.
“We encourage candid and fulsome debate and we pride ourselves on inviting and considering different points of view. That is a hallmark of good government,” the spokesperson said.
Massive agency in the crosshairs
DHS has a wide-ranging mission set, including cybersecurity, disaster response and counter-terrorism. But border security and immigration policy remain a core part of that mission.
Only weeks into taking office, the Biden administration was caught between rolling back restrictive Trump-era policies, while managing a growing crisis at the US southern border. Unaccompanied children overwhelmed border facilities and arrests soared.
As of Thursday morning, there more than 8,000 migrants waiting under the Del Rio International Bridge to be processed, according to Bruno Lozano, the mayor of Del Rio.
The administration has relied on a controversial border policy linked to the pandemic that allows authorities to turn back adults and families apprehended at the border. Biden faced criticism from immigrant advocates who argued the policy betrayed the country’s stance of welcoming asylum seekers and from Republicans who claimed abrupt changes in immigration policy fueled migration north.
As the coronavirus pandemic appeared to wane in the spring, the administration seemed to be on the cusp of easing that policy but ultimately it stayed in place.
“I get the sense that the pendulum has shifted much more to trying to get the numbers down. At first, they were really concerned about separating themselves from the Trump administration,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “I think they’re really in contention on how to contain people from crossing the border. But they don’t seem to have a lot of tools.”
Range of opinions
Mayorkas brought on counselors to advise on a range of issues. Some of those counselors came from immigrant advocacy circles, a welcome sign for outside groups seeking to elevate their policy ideas. But the influence of counselors, and in some cases their lack of government experience, has become a point of tension among some at DHS, multiple sources told CNN.
“DHS was crippled after the Trump administration, so there was not the normal depth of seasoned career officials to help during transition as appointees got up to speed,” a former Homeland Security official told CNN.
“They really needed a team with prior DHS experience and instead brought in people with perhaps good ideas but not the practical executive branch experience that is critical to know how to actually implement good ideas,” the former official added.
For some career officials at DHS, the return to including those officials in policymaking has been a positive change, one official said. “We’re doing almost nothing, and all of a sudden it’s operating at 100 miles per hour,” the official said of the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration.
The White House released a document in July summarizing the steps the administration has taken to address immigration and outlining its blueprint “for a fair, orderly and humane immigration system.” It included bolstering public messaging to discourage irregular migration, cracking down on human trafficking, improving the US asylum system and promoting legal pathways to migrate to the US.
Change proving slow
While the administration has made some inroads, changes to the US immigration system have been slow rolling, which officials acknowledged would be the case. And in the process, the administration has also had to contend with losses in court cases over some of the changes they have made. Earlier this year, a federal judge blocked the Biden administration’s temporary moratorium on deportations. That same judge later issued a ruling blocking ICE’s enforcement priorities, but a federal appellate court on Wednesday largely halted the order.
The Supreme Court in August also declined the Biden administration’s request that it put on hold a lower court order requiring the revival of a Trump-era policy requiring migrants stay in Mexico until their US immigration court date. The policy, informally known as “remain in Mexico,” was suspended at the beginning of Biden’s term and formally terminated months later.
“We respectfully do not agree with the district court’s ruling,” Mayorkas said Monday at a homeland security forum. “But there is a court order in place that requires us to implement ‘remain in Mexico’ and we will abide by the court’s order.”
In addition to this week’s departures at DHS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s top attorney and Biden pick, John Trasviña, is also leaving the agency, according to an agency official.
Trasviña, the former dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, was selected to fill the post of principal legal advisor by the Biden administration. It’s unclear why he’s departing only months into the administration. CNN reached out to ICE for comment.
ICE — an agency within the DHS — remains without a permanent leader as Biden’s pick for director, Ed Gonzalez, awaits Senate confirmation. The agency is currently led by career official Tae Johnson. The last time the agency came close to permanent leadership was 2019, with the appointment of Ron Vitiello. Vitiello’s nomination was unexpectedly yanked by then-President Donald Trump and consistent turnover followed.
Another key immigration agency — US Customs and Border Protection — is also awaiting a Senate-confirmed leader. Biden nominated Tucson, Arizona, Police Chief Chris Magnus to serve as CBP commissioner, but Magnus hasn’t yet had a nomination hearing.
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