The Department of Homeland Security put together a plan months ago to deal with thousands of migrants arriving at the border: flying some of them to cities deeper inside the US for processing.
But the plan is dead for now, officials tell CNN, in part after the White House grew hesitant over the complicated logistics.
It has been an endless cycle since President Joe Biden took office, according to multiple administration officials and sources close to the White House. Agency officials dream up a plan but then struggle to get White House approval, even as the problem compounds and Republicans step up their criticism.
Frustration is mounting, too, especially among those on the front lines.
“Everything seems to influence each other,” one Homeland Security official told CNN. “Things develop. People change their minds. They lose one battle, and they do this instead.”
“I think they’re at the point where it’s Hail Mary after Hail Mary,” the official added.
As border arrests remain high, officials are grappling with how to stem the flow of migration – resulting in a constant churn of ideas, including processing migrants further from the border.
“Interior assistance and community support is something the White House is only serious about discussing when encounter rates rise,” another Homeland Security official told CNN, adding that additional big policy changes aren’t expected until after the midterm election.
The process is often bogged down by a back and forth between the White House and DHS. The department, under pressure to mitigate the situation on the US-Mexico border, floats proposals to the White House, which in turn asks for additional information, fueling frustrations between the two, sources told CNN. Disagreements and questions over policy, including interior processing, also bubble up among officials within DHS.
“These are areas that have we have been working through together,” a source familiar with internal discussions said, adding that there may be varying opinions across agencies as well as within them.
“There are always differences of opinions to work through,” the source added.
And last week, one significant plan came to fruition: The administration announced a humanitarian parole program for Venezuelan migrants while also expanding the use of the controversial Trump-era pandemic emergency restriction on the border.
“Encouraging robust debate, hearing different ideas, and getting lots of expertise before making policy decisions that impact millions of lives is a feature, not a bug,” said Abdullah Hasan, a White House spokesperson, in a statement. “And it is through this smart, deliberative, and collaborative approach that we have seen significant progress in rebuilding the immigration system the prior Administration gutted.”
A DHS spokesperson maintained the administration is “unified,” and defended the administration’s response to what it called a “broken and dismantled immigration system” it inherited from the Trump administration.
“This Administration is unified in its commitment to enforce our laws and secure our border, while building a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system; discussion and a diversity of ideas are not just expected but essential as we develop real solutions on an issue of this complexity,” the spokesperson said.
“The administration has effectively managed an unprecedented number of noncitizens seeking to enter the United States, interdicted more drugs, and disrupted more smuggling operations than ever before, all while reversing the cruel and harmful policies of the prior administration,” the spokesperson added.
Ongoing political challenge for administration
Immigration was among the first issues Biden faced when a surge of unaccompanied minors caught the administration flatfooted in the first months of his presidency. That crisis, officials say, along with the growing number of migrants at the border continues to loom over the administration’s immigration agenda.
“The paralysis on the border has impacted their whole agenda,” one source close to the White House said.
Republican governors, meanwhile, have sent migrants to Democratic-led cities as an affront to Democrats and to the White House – bringing the issue of immigration to the forefront of national discussion and drawing fierce criticism from immigrant advocates, city officials and the Biden administration.
Immigrant advocates and Democrats have also slammed the administration over its increased emphasis on enforcement and most recently, moving to turn back thousands of Venezuelan migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border under the Trump-era Title 42.
“Expanding Title 42 to now include Venezuelans adds salt to an open wound while further eroding our asylum system that President Biden promised to restore,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey in a statement.
Re-opening ports of entry to asylum seekers in an orderly way using, for example, a Customs and Border Protection application and opening centers that house multiple federal agencies to process migrants are among the other options that have been circulated for months, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
The White House has received briefings from DHS about plans for the joint processing centers, the source familiar with internal discussions told CNN, describing it as the normal course of business.
“You get an appropriation from Congress, you work to meet the directions of that appropriation in ways that also match with the priorities that the secretary of Homeland Security has set, likely or in some way in coordination with the White House,” the source said.
Other policies have moved forward, like a regulation that allows asylum officers to hear and decide asylum claims – cases that are usually assigned to immigration judges – when migrants present at the US southern border and a dedicated immigration court docket for migrant families. Both of those policies were laid out in an immigration blueprint released by the White House last year.
Surge in Venezuelan migrants
Concerns over increasing border arrests is in part based on mass movement across the Western Hemisphere, where thousands of migrants, particularly Venezuelans, are fleeing deteriorating conditions.
Poor economic conditions, food shortages and limited access to health care, for example, are increasingly pushing Venezuelans to leave, posing an urgent challenge for the Biden administration. More than 6 million Venezuelans have fled their country, matching Ukraine in the number of displaced people and surpassing Syria, according to the United Nations.
Over recent weeks, around 1,000 Venezuelans were apprehended along the US-Mexico border daily, according to a Homeland Security official. To compare, just under 1,000 Venezuelans arrived at the US southern border in the entire month of February 2021, US government data shows.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reiterated last week that Venezuelan migrants shouldn’t cross the border unlawfully, citing instead the humanitarian parole program.
“These actions make clear that there is a lawful and orderly way for Venezuelans to enter the United States, and lawful entry is the only way,” he said in a statement. “Those who attempt to cross the southern border of the United States illegally will be returned to Mexico and will be ineligible for this process in the future.”
Administration officials have also been working closely with countries across the Western Hemisphere to try to manage the flow of migration north and set up protections closer to migrant origin countries.
But the myriad of considerations and federal agencies involved in immigration often results in an arduous decision-making process.
“A big challenge for this issue is that it sits on the cracks of a whole set of structures at the White House,” said a former Obama administration official. “It is a highly complicated process and that all is just dealing with logistic management of moving people around. Let alone, the expansion of alternative avenues for people to have access to relief.”
That’s become exacerbated by the politically charged environment and attention on solving the crisis in the near term.
“Much of the focus, and much of the public focus, is on the short-term emergency and how do you manage the movement of people,” said Cecilia Munoz, the former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama, noting that Congress also hasn’t provided any new tools to the government.
“Every decision is fraught because the Republicans have made it so clear that they intend to make political payout of the situation. No decision is just about the merits of the action contemplated. All of it has political resonance,” Munoz said.