(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden is confronting an influx of migrants at the southern U.S. border without permanent leaders at key agencies that oversee immigration enforcement and shelters, threatening to hamper the administration’s response to a growing crisis.
Biden has yet to nominate a commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, which apprehends migrants attempting to illegally cross the border and controls ports of entry. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the office that runs shelters for children and teens arriving without parents, also lacks a nominee.
The president also hasn’t named permanent leaders for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, two agencies that will implement new visa and enforcement measures that are core components of Biden’s pledge to create a more humane and welcoming immigration system. Immigration services also administers the naturalization system.
The administration’s handling of surging numbers of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has drawn criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. GOP lawmakers have blamed Biden, saying his reversal of former President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies have encouraged more border crossings, a charge the administration rejects. Democrats have objected to Biden’s use of an emergency public-health order to expel most migrants arriving at the border.
“The one thing about having political leadership -- Senate-confirmed, high-level political leadership -- is the heft,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Having that ability to command an organization, especially if you’re responding to a crisis, is important.”
With acting officials in charge, it is more difficult to get buy-in from rank-and-file employees on policy changes, according to Brown, a former DHS official, as well as other people who previously worked at the department. Acting officials also have less clout than confirmed leaders to get a response from the White House about possible concerns from agency workers about policies, they said.
‘Fair and Humane’
Biden last month put Kamala Harris in charge of overseeing the administration’s response to the border crisis, giving the vice president her first major assignment since taking office. She’s leading a diplomatic effort to address root causes of migration from Central American countries. The State Department also named Ricardo Zúñiga as a special envoy to the region.
It’s not unprecedented for immigration-related agencies to lack confirmed leaders less than 100 days into a president’s term. But former government officials say it’s yet another hurdle facing Biden at a pivotal moment.
The lack of permanent leadership has also caused Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to take on more tasks that agency heads might otherwise handle, according to another former DHS official who requested anonymity to candidly discuss internal dynamics.
A White House official, who requested anonymity to discuss the nomination process, said nominees to fill vacancies at immigration-related agencies are expected to be announced in the weeks and months ahead. The official denied that the lack of Senate-confirmed leaders at key agencies is preventing Biden from implementing policies designed to stem the flow of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“As we work to fill key appointments the Biden Administration is simultaneously working closely with career officials across the inter-agency to re-build an immigration system dismantled after four years of neglect and move President Biden’s fair and humane immigration agenda forward,” said White House spokesman Vedant Patel.
Biden has been put on the defensive over his handling of the skyrocketing number of migrants arriving at the border, which includes record numbers of unaccompanied minors that have strained the government’s ability to care for them.
U.S. authorities apprehended more than 170,000 migrants in March, the highest monthly total in the last 15 years. The figures belie the White House’s assertions that the spike is merely a seasonal increase no different than prior years. White House officials say most of the migrants are single adults who are immediately expelled under a public-health order intended to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Still, the situation has become a political vulnerability for Biden even as he has received high marks from the public on the pandemic and the economy. Less than a quarter of Americans approve of the president’s handling of unaccompanied minors at the border and 56% disapprove of his handling of immigration broadly, according to an Associated Press/NORC poll released this week.
Beds for Kids
Finding enough bed space to house the unaccompanied minors is one of the most immediate challenges facing Biden. Children and teens apprehended without parents are required by law to be transferred within 72 hours from CBP custody to HHS housing. However, thousands have stayed in cramped holding facilities for longer due to lack of shelter space that has already been shrunk by pandemic-related space restrictions.
The CBP commissioner would typically play a leading role in coordinating logistics of moving children from CBP facilities to HHS sites in conjunction with the health department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which runs the shelters. In lieu of a confirmed commissioner, Mayorkas’s office has stepped in to help lead the logistical efforts, according to the former DHS official.
The White House official said the administration has added beds for child migrants by opening or planning nine new shelters and emergency intake sites since Biden took office, even without confirmed leaders in place at immigration agencies. The official added that having confirmed leaders wouldn’t necessarily change the administration’s policy toward child migrants.
Cindy Huang last month was named director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a position that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Her supervisor is JooYeun Chang, who is acting assistant secretary of the HHS Administration for Children and Families.
The senior CBP official carrying out the commissioner’s duties is Troy Miller, who formerly led operations at the agency’s New York field office.
The administration has also installed senior political advisers at the Department of Homeland Security, including chiefs of staff at the immigration agencies and headquarters, who do not require Senate confirmation.
Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Services, said the Biden administration accelerated agency appointments during the transition because it foresaw a slow Senate confirmation process. While lower-ranking political officials can help guide the policy process, they can’t command the agencies or sign orders.
Biden has 29 Senate-confirmed officials in place out of 1,200 posts he must fill, four more than Trump but two dozen less than Barack Obama had at the same point in their presidencies, according to the public service group.
John Sandweg, former acting ICE director under Obama, praised the current crop of acting officials leading CBP, ICE and USCIS and said they’re capable of implementing Biden’s policies. But he said if rank-and-file employees raise concerns about a policy, the White House is more likely to treat them seriously if conveyed by a permanent official. And agency workers are more likely to see a confirmed leader as speaking for the administration than an acting one.
“That’s the main thing, is the trust factor on both sides,” he said.
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