The Biden team is talking a tough game on new illegal immigration, but behind the scenes it’s making frantic efforts to get ready for what it expects to be massive “border surges” of migrants streaming north over the next months, according to an internal Homeland Security Department email.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is scrambling to find bigger airplanes and figure out more ground transport capacity for soaring numbers of illegal immigrants, and is even talking with a company that runs “Man Camps” for oil workers in Texas to see whether it will rent bed space for the incoming wave of illegal immigrants.
New Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told ICE that cost is no issue, and to cancel contracts and sign new ones without worry about the price tag, according to the email from ICE Chief of Staff Timothy Perry. Mr. Mayorkas said he is also pondering diverting money from the border wall “to backfill budgets later,” the email said.
“We need to prepare for border surges now,” Mr. Perry wrote to ICE’s top leadership, memorializing orders issued by Mr. Mayorkas. “We need to begin making changes immediately. We should privilege action over cost considerations; do what is needed, and the department will work on funding afterward.”
The tone of the Feb. 12 email contrasts with the public stance of the Biden administration, which has insisted that the borders aren’t open and people will be turned away.
“This email says they’re aware it is about to get out of control,” one former high-ranking department official told The Washington Times.
Mr. Mayorkas has created a special border management team and installed himself as chairman of its steering committee. He installed his deputy as chairman of the operations committee.
They have demanded daily updates from ICE, including a striking request for the deportation agency to forecast migrant activity four days in advance.
Mr. Mayorkas, according to the email, also gave orders to try to keep ICE officers out of the mission as much as possible. He said they should be used only “when necessary.”
“No fences,” Mr. Perry wrote.
Acting ICE Director Tae Johnson was told to call Target Hospitality, a company that runs Man Camps, to see whether it would rent bed space to ICE. Other top ICE officials were building a spreadsheet to detail what other capacity might be used.
Target did not respond to an inquiry about its facilities.
Homeland Security, in response to questions from The Times about the looming surges, provided a statement blaming the Trump administration for leaving the immigration system “decimated over the last four years.”
The department said it is “starting from square one” to create a humane system, amid the headwinds of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are moving swiftly to rebuild, including the recent establishment of a system to process individuals with active MPP cases, but it’s going to take time. In the meantime, the border is not open, and people should not make the journey to reach it,” the department said.
Homeland Security said border numbers have been rising since last April and blamed conditions in Central America.
“Our border response, which includes planning and preparation for seasonal and new migration trends, protects the health and safety of our communities, facilitates necessary trade and travel across our borders, and ensures the humane processing of asylum seekers and others seeking legal humanitarian relief,” the department said.
At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated Tuesday the administration’s admonition that migrants not make the trip, even if some can expect more lenient treatment when they do arrive.
“This is not the time to come,” she said. “We have not had the time to put in place an immigration system, an immigration policy. We don’t have the processing we need at the border. Obviously, we are continuing to struggle with facilities to ensure that we’re abiding by COVID protocol. So this is definitely not the time to come.”
Customs and Border Protection handles the actual border, nabbing illegal crossers and processing them alongside ICE.
Social distancing restrictions have reduced capacity at border stations, leaving fewer options than were available in 2019, when the last migrant surge overwhelmed the border and forced Congress to rush nearly $5 billion in assistance.
Mr. Perry, in his email, said Mr. Mayorkas is urging the immigration services to move migrants deeper into the country for processing to take pressure off the border stations.
“ICE should increase the cadence of its transport and arrange for individuals to complete their processing and ATD’ing at processing centers north of the border,” he wrote. ATD, or Alternatives to Detention, means those migrants will be released into communities with conditions like regular check-ins with officers.
Mr. Mayorkas’ orders to ignore costs, as detailed by Mr. Perry’s email, could raise legal questions, said one law enforcement source who questioned why there hasn’t been better coordination with state and local officials.
“To go around Congress is even more stunning,” the source said.
Homeland Security’s frenetic pace of preparations for a surge comes as President Biden has rescinded or reversed much of the Trump-era machinery that solved the last border surge in 2019.
Border wall construction has been canceled, catch-and-release of migrants has returned to some parts of the border, and Homeland Security last week began admitting the first of some 25,000 migrants who had been waiting in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
The MPP, which security experts said was critical in solving the 2019 border surge, made migrants who crossed the border without permission but who wanted to pursue claims such as asylum wait in Mexico for their court hearings, effectively denying them a foothold in the U.S.
Officials along the border say those changes, and the looming surge of migrants that Homeland Security is acknowledging behind the scenes, will hit their communities the hardest.
“There’s a lot of concern here, and the concern is we don’t want to go back to where we’ve been,” said Mark Dannels, sheriff of Cochise County in southeastern Arizona and chairman of the National Sheriffs’ Association border security committee.
Mr. Mayorkas’s orders to ICE to limit the use of sworn officers and his “no fences” admonition appear to be an effort to distinguish this administration’s response from that of the Obama and Trump administrations.
Mr. Mayorkas was deputy secretary at Homeland Security in 2014, when illegal immigrant children from Central America began surging north. A year later, it was whole families of parents and children.
The Obama team oversaw the creation of two family detention facilities and expanded processing at border stations by erecting chain-link fence pens. During the Trump years, critics called them “cages.”
Mr. Biden has called that inhumane and vowed a more compassionate approach.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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