The Trump administration warned President Biden’s transition team last year to expect a migrant surge if it followed through on his immigration campaign promises, and even presented modeling to show how bad it might get, a senior official told The Washington Times.
Mark Morgan, who was acting commissioner at Customs and Border Protection, also said the Biden team had given indications they were receptive to the warnings, so the new president’s early move to erase key get-tough policies that had worked to solve the 2019 migrant surge came as a surprise.
And Mr. Morgan called new claims by Biden officials blaming the Trump administration for refusing requests to build capacity “blatantly false.
“We were anticipating that there would be a need based on the modeling. But here’s the thing. No one in this administration told anybody — they did not tell HHS, they did not tell CBP — they were going to remove MPP, they were going to remove the ACAs. That came without warning. They just did that,” Mr. Morgan said.
The Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as the Remain in Mexico policy, had been used to push migrants back across the line into Mexico while they waited for their immigration hearings, denying them a foothold in the U.S. The Asylum Cooperative Agreements were deals struck with Central American countries to stem the flow of people across their territory en route to the U.S.
They have all been casualties of the new Biden approach, which has seen a surge the administration says could be the worst in two decades.
A key question is whether new Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and the Biden team saw it coming and pushed ahead anyway, or were taken by surprise.
Mr. Mayorkas refused to answer when asked directly in a congressional hearing earlier this month.
“I don’t know that I had any particular expectation one way or the other. I just knew what we needed to do when we confront a situation, and in fact, we are doing it,” he said.
Homeland Security didn’t respond to an inquiry Tuesday, but after weeks of downplaying the surge, last week some Biden backers took a new approach, saying that in fact his team had foreseen the problems and had even urged the Trump administration to prepare.
“They were sitting on their hands,” one Biden transition official told NBC News. “It was incredibly frustrating.”
Administration officials made the same claim during a telephone briefing with reporters last week.
The Times’ attempts to reach transition officials with knowledge of the negotiations were unsuccessful.
But that version of events conflicts with what Trump officials were saying even last year, when Mr. Morgan and other top officials briefed reporters in January on the border situation.
They were asked how negotiations with the transition team were going.
Border Patrol Deputy Chief Raul Ortiz, who was part of the meetings, told reporters that they’d talked about the previous surges of 2014, which involved a massive wave of unaccompanied juveniles, and 2019, which was chiefly migrant families. This year’s surge is mostly juveniles, though the number of families is growing.
Mr. Morgan wasn’t part of the transition meetings but said he was being briefed. In January, talking with reporters, he said it seemed the incoming administration was heeding the warnings about not eliminating the get-tough policies.
“It’s been very amicable, they really feel that the briefers are listening to the experts, to our folks,” he said at the time. “Part of what’s been presented has made its way up through the chain and really has driven the new administration to back off.”
In fact, the Biden team did not back off most of its campaign promises, moving quickly to end the MPP and cancel the cooperative agreements.
Biden officials have said the Trump administration left a “gutted” system that made it difficult to claim asylum, and by scaring migrants away from trying to jump the border, the Trump team had created a pent-up demand that accounts for the current surge. The implication is that once that works its way through, the surge might dissipate.
Briefing reporters last week, one administration official said “there wasn’t even a system in place to test or quarantine migrants for COVID-19.”
But that’s because the Trump administration didn’t need that capacity. Thanks to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pandemic order, known as Title 42 because of the section of law that lays out the powers, the Border Patrol had been quickly expelling nearly all illegal immigrants.
In December, 85% of all persons the Border Patrol nabbed jumping the boundary were expelled under Title 42. In February, after the Biden changes, that had dropped to 72%.
That’s at least partly by choice of the Biden administration, which despite winning a legal battle to be allowed to expel UACs under Title 42, announced it would not do so.
That’s overwhelmed the federal Health and Human Services Department, which is tasked with caring for the UACs until sponsors can be found to take them or until they age out and are released.
HHS began the year with space for about 13,200 children. That was already lower than the department wanted, and much of that capacity was curtailed because of coronavirus restrictions, the Migration Policy Institute said in a new analysis this week.
“The Biden administration took office with less than half of the shelter capacity that ORR had estimated was needed for preparedness,” MPI fellow Mark Greenberg concluded.
Mr. Morgan, in speaking to The Times, said if the Biden team believed the system it was handed was broken, it should have delayed the changes until it had its replacement plan in place.
“I would have said ‘You can’t do it all at the stroke of a pen. You’ve got to wait. You need to give us 90, 100 days, to get the facilities set up before you undo it all,” Mr. Morgan said.
He also said the new administration cannot claim to be surprised by what’s transpired, since Mr. Mayorkas was serving as deputy secretary in 2014 and 2015 and had an up-close view of child and family surges.
“I was the chief of the Border Patrol when he was the deputy. He knows this — he knew the Border Patrol facilities were not designed for families. He knew the capacity was not there,” Mr. Morgan said.
He said if the Biden team had told him they still planned to go ahead with their Day 1 revocations of Trump policies, he would have told them it was unwise, but then would have worked to shape the decisions.
“I would have said ‘OK, I disagree with this, but if you’re going to do it, you cannot get rid of Title 42 for UACs while you’re also getting rid of MPP, while you’re also getting rid of the ACAs, while you’re also creating capacity that Mexico can’t handle,’” Mr. Morgan said.