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White House Looks to Rebound After 'Botched' Rollout of Migrant Centers for Children

Newsweek logo Newsweek 3/3/2021 Adrian Carrasquillo
Alejandro Mayorkas wearing a suit and tie: WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 1: Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on March 1, 2021 in Washington, DC. Mayorkas discussed the Biden administration's plans for overhauling immigration policy. © Drew Angerer/Getty Images/Getty WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 1: Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on March 1, 2021 in Washington, DC. Mayorkas discussed the Biden administration's plans for overhauling immigration policy.

When Joe and Jill Biden sat for an interview on Friday with Univision, one of the most recognizable Spanish-language networks in the country, the president wanted to talk about the COVID-19 relief package making its way through Congress, and vaccination rates in communities of color.

What the White House wanted to avoid was the topic of immigration, Univision sources familiar with the weeks-long planning for the interview said. But that became increasingly untenable after a botched rollout of the reopening of Trump-era migrant facilities for kids forced the Biden administration to defend itself from attacks across the political spectrum, and persistent questions from reporters on whether there was already a nascent border crisis so early in his term.

"At first they didn't want to talk about immigration, but it was impossible," a network source said.

Asked by Univision anchor Ilia Calderon about the new Del Rio facility in Texas for children and families, Biden said the "expectation is that it won't stay open very long, that we'll be able to provide for every kid who comes across the border safely to be housed in a facility that's licensed and what we're trying to do and we have literally hundreds of people doing now" is uniting "these children with families while they wait to have a hearing."

The administration's messaging on the reopened facilities began with what many Democrats and immigration activists characterized as a misfire from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki last Tuesday. At the time, she didn't explain what the Biden administration was doing differently than Trump, as well as the improved conditions in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)-run facilities that are considered better than the controversial Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detention centers.

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The White House sought to fix that mistake in a subsequent briefing by Psaki on Wednesday and also made DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas available for a wide-ranging briefing Monday—something that Democrats and advocates said they would have liked to see in a structured way from the beginning that could have avoided the headaches of last week.

Mayorkas said his agency was working around the clock to replace "the cruelty of the past administration with an orderly, humane, and safe immigration process," adding that Trump "dismantled our nation's immigration system in its entirety." Upon his confirmation by the Senate 27 days prior, Mayorkas learned "we did not have the facilities available or equipped to administer the humanitarian laws that our Congress passed years ago."

"We did not have the personnel, policies, procedures, or training to administer those laws," Mayorkas explained. "Quite frankly, the entire system was gutted."

Activists appreciated Mayorkas' candor and the realities of the dire situation Biden inherited. But they also said the White House was slow to detail the way their facilities would differ and be better than Trump's that were forced to close, because the Biden administration was worried a rosy picture about teachers and medical personnel at facilities for kids would be cast as "too generous" and used by political opponents and disinformation peddlers in Central America.

"My impression was that there was concern that if they said too much it would be used to funnel disinformation to encourage people to come," said Frank Sharry, executive director at America's Voice, an immigration reform organization. He took part in meetings with lawyers and activists to learn about ways the Remain in Mexico program was being wound down.

That program, Sharry said, was revamped and handled in an exceedingly competent manner, but the White House stumbled on its execution of its press strategy concerning the reopened centers.

"They didn't tell the story, so the story got told for them on the right and the left," he said.

On the left, criticism came from people who had fought for the closure of facilities under Trump. Progressive leader Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in response to news that the first migrant facility for children opened under Biden: "This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration of party."

"Blowback from your own team, you don't want that," Sharry added. "It was a failure to communicate."

A senior Democrat, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, told Newsweek the White House was in "panic" after the "botched" rollout. They said the administration should have given an exclusive story to a major news organization with a walkthrough on how Biden's reopened facilities would be different than Trump's, temporary in nature, and have vastly improved conditions for children—as well as conducted a sit-down with activists asking for buy-in and help in explaining the urgent situation amid pandemic capacity restrictions.

"Mayorkas was trying to perform 'clean up,' but everything he said should have been included in an initial announcement," the source said.

The White House declined to comment or provide information on coming interviews with administration leadership to continue explaining the developing situation at the border.

But a White House official told Newsweek the transition team communicated to senators that the confirmation of Mayorkas was one of its top priorities, and a two-week delay in doing so was partly responsible for the scramble that played out.

"Those two weeks are a huge loss to the department to manage logistics, it sort of becomes your problem at that point," the source said. "These agencies are not fully staffed by our people, there is very good career staff — people who stayed through the sh**show of the last administration — but they need leadership."

They added that the fact that Xavier Becerra has still not been confirmed as HHS secretary is a "huge problem," especially as some reopened facilities are run by the agency. "You have a COVID commission, but that's not a replacement for having the HHS secretary in the building. DHS and HHS are not interior, they actually have federal employees on the frontlines every single day."

While the White House did not want to talk immigration with Univision, first lady Dr. Jill Biden, standing alongside the president at a food bank in Houston, took the time to chime in on the immigration centers. The White House official explained there is "no issue more important to Dr. Biden" than the "horrific child separation," which added a lot of motivation to beat Trump during the election.

"This administration is doing it in a humane way and that's really important," Jill Biden told Univision. "I mean, we want to make sure that these children are safe, that they get mental health services, they get physical health services, they get an education. So, we are really concerned about these children."

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