Will There Be a Pivot on Biden’s Immigration Policies?

The departure of two key White House advisors suggests a change may be in the offing

By Andrew R. Arthur on January 10, 2022

With apprehensions of illegal migrants at the Southwest border running at all-time highs, ICE slow-walking release of its annual enforcement report, and immigration the president’s largest political liability, there are signs that the Biden administration is about to do a pivot on its immigration policies, as two key White House advisors are set to depart.

The Deleterious Consequences of Biden’s Immigration Policies. The national security and humanitarian disaster at the Southwest border entered its tenth month in November, when Border Patrol apprehended almost 166,000 illegal migrants — the most in any November in recorded history (monthly statistics go back to October 1999).

In fact, November’s apprehension numbers more than doubled the previous record for the month (set in November 1999, at just fewer than 76,200). The situation at the Southwest border has been compounded by the entry of large numbers of unaccompanied alien children, thousands of whom were languishing in Border Patrol custody as of January 3.

While the border as a whole has seen a massive increase in illegal migrants since the first full month of the Biden administration, the Border Patrol’s Yuma sector has been particularly hard hit — apprehensions there were up more than 2,400 percent in October and November from the same two months the year before.

Compounding Yuma’s woes is the fact that more than 89 percent of the migrants apprehended there thus far in FY 2022 were from farther afield than Mexico and the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. More than half came from Brazil and Venezuela.

In a January 3 piece, the editorial board at Bloomberg Opinion — hardly a reactionary group — put the blame for the situation at the Southwest border squarely on the president, opining that: “Biden’s rush to undo any immigration policies associated with his predecessor has contributed to upheaval at the border and encouraged more people to risk their lives trying to reach the U.S.”

The deleterious effects of the White House’s immigration policies are not just being felt at the border. My colleague Jessica Vaughan has explained that due to restrictions the administration has placed on ICE enforcement in the interior from day one, deportations have “plummeted to a fraction” of what they normally are.

The decline is reflected not simply in ICE removals of “status offenders” — those deportable for violating the immigration laws. Vaughan’s research reveals that the agency also removed many fewer serious criminals (for offenses such as aggravated and sexual assault, robbery, and homicide) in the first six-plus months under Biden than during the same period in prior years — even accounting for the pandemic.

Her research is, admittedly, limited, but that is due to a lack of transparency on the part of the administration when it comes to immigration enforcement. The ICE annual report for FY 2021 — which had been released at the end of the calendar year since at least 2011 — isn’t out yet.

My colleague (and former ICE official) Jon Feere told Fox News:

This is unprecedented. ... It’s something ICE does every year proudly because agents and officers want to show the results of their hard work over the last year, and for the Biden administration political appointees to not want to produce this is really a slap in the face to the hard-working career officials, and more importantly it's clearly a political effort aimed at hiding the impact of the Biden administration’s policies.

Biden’s Immigration Policies Are a Political Liability. Despite this lack of transparency, American voters are taking notice of the breakdown in immigration enforcement.

A recent Wall Street Journal poll revealed that “immigration” was the top priority that respondents wanted the White House and Congress to address, and a December 18 to 20 poll by Morning Consult and Politico of 1,998 registered voters showed that 56 percent of respondents disapproved of Biden’s handling of immigration (41 percent “strongly disapproved” compared to just 35 percent approval).

That latter poll actually had a partisan skew in the overall approval numbers: 64 percent of Independent voters — a key swing constituency in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections — disapproved of the president’s handling of immigration, 43 percent “strongly” so.

Internal White House Battles Over Immigration. In a November 22 post, I reviewed reports in the Wall Street Journal of a split among the president’s advisors when it comes to immigration.

On the one side were what I deemed the “No Borders” camp, primarily campaign advisors occupying several top immigration-policy jobs at the White House, DHS, and the State Department. On the other were what I referred to (for want of a better term) as the “Pro-Enforcement Bloc”, senior political officials including White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Chief Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice, and others.

In that piece, I opined that the No Borders crowd appeared to have the upper hand based on the administration’s current and proposed immigration policies, but there is some evidence of a shift of late.

Two Key Departures. The Hill reported last Friday that Esther Olavarria, deputy director for immigration of the Domestic Policy Council, would be stepping down from that position, following the planned departure of Tyler Moran, who is a senior adviser on migration.

Olavarria, a former colleague on Capitol Hill when she served as immigration counsel for the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), has been a key driver of immigration policies during the past two Democratic administrations. I have great respect for her as an expert and an advocate, but to state that we have very different views on immigration enforcement would be an understatement.

Moran, a former immigration advisor to the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) when he was Democratic leader in the Upper Chamber, was a deputy policy director for immigration at the Obama White House.

She was also co-founder and executive director of Immigration Hub, “a national organization dedicated to advancing fair and just immigration policies through strategic leadership, innovative communications strategies, legislative advocacy and collaborative partnerships”.

In an interview with MSNBC in June following Vice President (and quasi-“Border Czar”) Kamala Harris’s “root causes” trip to Central America, Moran asserted that “the president and vice president are deeply committed to rebuilding our immigration system after four years of chaos and mismanagement.” Her presentation was heavy on granting immigration benefits to migrants and light on any enforcement.

Rice has been effusive in her praise for each as they are set to depart. When Moran’s departure was announced, the domestic policy advisor asserted: “Tyler has been an invaluable member of our team since the transition and a tremendous asset in our effort to rebuild a fair and humane immigration system.”

Similarly, The Hill quotes Rice as stating:

I could not be more grateful for Esther Olavarria’s myriad contributions to the Biden-Harris Administration, particularly her work to reverse the cruel and reckless policies of the previous Administration and to implement President Biden’s vision for a fair, orderly, and humane immigration system.

I do not want to read too much into Rice’s statements, nor certainly to engage in rank speculation, but it is curious that the White House front-person lauding the departure of two officials with an “expansive” view of immigration happens to be a person identified in the Wall Street Journal as taking a more cautious approach.

Of course, Rice is the head of the Domestic Policy Council, and thus these sorts of laudatory statements are in her portfolio. That said, she is also a shrewd politico who knows which way the electoral winds blow. Rice’s statements are redolent of the football team owner who thanks the fired head coach for his “rebuilding” efforts after back-to-back four-win years.

The proof will be in the White House’s choices to replace Olavarria and Moran. If they are technocrats and cold-eyed political operatives, expect a bit more enforcement. If the pair are replaced by similar-minded immigrant advocates, however, expect more of the same non-enforcement — or worse.

The border — already a national-security and economic vulnerability for a country reeling from nearly two years of pandemic shutdowns — is also shaping up to be a headache for the president and congressional Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections. It’s time for the president to get a team in place that can bring some sense of order to the chaos that is our current immigration system — for the nation’s good and the electoral prospects of his party.

Topics: Politics