What Did Biden Know about the Coming Border Surge, and When Did He Know It?

If the transition was briefed about the impending crisis, where was the plan?

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 3, 2021

In an April 29 post, I discussed reports that the Biden transition team knew that the new president would be facing a surge of migrants at the Southwest border, but still “struggled” (at great expense to the taxpayers) with a response. On April 30, however, “Biden blamed the Trump administration and the handling of the transition in discussing what he had inherited.” What did the president know about the pending border surge, and when did he know it?

In that earlier post, I referred to reporting from the Washington Examiner, which revealed the incoming Biden team had received intelligence that the border was about to heat up. The surge of migrants reached historically high proportions in March, just weeks after the inauguration.

When I say “historically high”, consider the fact that in all of FY 2008, Border Patrol apprehended 8,041 unaccompanied alien children (UACs). Last month alone, by comparison, 18,663 UACs were caught at the Southwest border, the highest monthly total for which statistics are kept. That was a 62 percent increase over the previous record of Border Patrol apprehensions at that border, 11,475, in May 2019.

Of course, May 2019 was the 28th full month of the Trump administration, and rather than helping the then-president out, or even improving conditions for those children, Trump’s opponents made hay of his predicament. And when I say the “Trump’s opponents”, I include then-candidate Joe Biden, who scathingly attacked the president’s handling of the situation on his campaign website.

Biden actually deflected questions about the Obama administration’s similar treatment of children during the last presidential debate:

Trump: Who built the cages, Joe?

Biden: Let’s talk about what we’re talking about. What happened? Parents were ripped — their kids were ripped from their arms and separated.

The “cages” in question refer to chain-link dividers separating apprehended migrants by age and sex in Border Patrol stations and processing centers.

As I have explained numerous times previously, those facilities were built at a time when most migrants who were apprehended were single adult males, who can largely be kept together.

Minor children, however, cannot be detained with unrelated adult males, so those makeshift chain-link dividers were erected in Border Patrol facilities to keep them separate. It is not pretty — and the images are easily demogogued (as all of the “kids in cages” blather reveals), but it is the safest and most effective response to an untenable situation.

Those children are not supposed to remain in Border Patrol custody for long. Rather, they are supposed to be sent to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) custody within 72 hours, for placement in its shelters. In early April, however, UACs were detained an average of 122 hours by Border Patrol.

If the Trump administration had known tens of thousands of unaccompanied children would be crossing illegally as soon as Biden took office, it could, perhaps, have started setting up “emergency shelters” for them (as Biden ended up doing, a policy I defended and still defend).

Setting up temporary shelters, however, could have exposed the Trump administration to lawsuits. Such suits under Obama led to the startlingly bad Flores decisions — which quickly encouraged adult migrants to enter with children — as I have previously explained.

It would also have been a waste of money to set up shelters for children who hadn’t been apprehended, assuming that there had been money available (HHS is also responsible for CDC and the FDA). The expenses to do so would not have been insignificant either, as the government would have been paying $775 per day for each bed that would not have been occupied.

I will note, however, that HHS actually increased its permanent shelters by 50 percent under the Trump administration, and had 200 such shelters in place when Biden took office.

Nor had the temporary shelters set up under the Trump administration (such as the first one reopened by the Biden administration at Carrizo Springs, Texas) been dismantled when Biden took office. If they had been, they could not have been reopened as quickly as they were: Carrizo Springs began receiving children on February 22.

Finally, if the Trump administration had reopened those facilities in anticipation of a wave of UACs arriving following the inauguration, it would have exposed the outgoing president to the same sort of vitriol he had already received — including from Biden — for his child detention policies.

It is difficult to criticize someone for doing what you would ultimately criticize him for not doing, but consistency in politics is rarely a virtue, and Trump likely would not have received the benefit of the doubt.

All of this is to say that it would have been incumbent on the Biden administration to have a plan in place on January 20 for a surge of migrants at the Southwest border, if it had known that such a surge was in the offing.

It would not have been unreasonable to expect him to take swift action. Biden had been the number-two man in the executive branch for eight years, and his administration had plenty of other immigration plans in place ready to go on Day One.

On Inauguration Day, for example, Biden issued his “Proclamation on the Termination of Emergency With Respect To The Southern Border Of The United States And Redirection Of Funds Diverted To Border Wall Construction”, “pausing” Southwest border wall construction indefinitely.

He also issued Executive Order (EO) 13993, “Revision of Civil Immigration Enforcement Policies and Priorities” on January 20. That EO scrapped Trump’s immigration-enforcement priorities, without establishing new ones.

Not to worry, though, because that day, Acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske issued a memorandum captioned “Review of and Interim Revision to Civil Immigration Enforcement and Removal Policies and Priorities”.

That innocuous-sounding document essentially halted almost all immigration enforcement in the interior of the United States (there was a national-security exception and one for aliens who had entered after October 1, 2020, as well as a limited one for aliens who posed a public-safety risk).

The Pekoske memo also imposed a 100-day moratorium on almost all removals from the United States, which has subsequently been enjoined on a nationwide basis by U.S. District Court Judge Drew Tipton.

Finally, on January 20, Biden also issued the outline of his massive amnesty plan.

Note that when it came to a bunch of other issues and departments, Biden’s pronouncements on January 20 were more cautious and preliminary.

Thus, the Commerce Department was tasked with “reviewing” regulations related to “Taking and Importing Marine Mammals; Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to Geophysical Surveys Related to Oil and Gas Activities in the Gulf of Mexico”.

The EPA was directed to review regulations about “Decabromodiphenyl Ether (DecaBDE); Regulation of Persistent, Bioaccumulative, and Toxic Chemicals Under TSCA Section 6(h)”.

And the Interior Department was given the task of reviewing “Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Revised Designation of Critical Habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl” regulations.

Not so for immigration enforcement, though. On that subject, Biden’s actions were slash-and-burn, and the president rolled up his sleeves as soon as he got to the Oval Office and got to work.

Except for when it came to dealing with the safe and humane sheltering of tens of thousands of unaccompanied alien children. He either was blindsided because he did not know that their illegal entry was in the offing, or he deliberately put it off.

The question of which is true goes to the issue of whether Biden and/or his staff were told by the Trump administration in advance that intelligence indicated they were on their way.

The late Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) had a long and distinguished career in Washington (including as Senate minority leader and President Reagan’s chief of staff).

He is best remembered, however, for one question he asked former White House counsel John Dean during the Senate Watergate hearings in June 1973: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

When it comes to the disaster that is unfolding at the border, perhaps one of Howard Baker’s successors in the House or Senate could take a cue from the gentleman from Tennessee and ask Biden or one of his subordinates what the president knew about the pending border surge, and when he knew it. It would explain a lot, and clear a number of things up.