Trump loyalists across Homeland Security could vex Biden’s immigration policies
By Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Michael D. Shear
After a Texas judge last week temporarily blocked President Joe Biden’s order to pause deportations for 100 days, immigration agents did not hesitate to use the brief window to defy the incoming president’s new tone.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents moved a 40-year-old Cameroonian asylum seeker to a facility in Louisiana and prepared to deport him, despite his claims of torture in his home country.
“This is not what the Biden administration stands for,” Henry Hollithron, the man’s lawyer, said in an interview. “That is definitely a holdover from the Trump era.”
President Donald Trump often complained about what he called a “deep state” inside the government working to thwart his agenda. But Biden and his secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, are already encountering their own pockets of internal resistance, especially at the agencies charged with enforcing the nation’s immigration laws, where the gung-ho culture has long favored the get-tough policies that Trump embraced.
Mayorkas, who was confirmed on Tuesday after a nearly two-week delay by Republicans unhappy about his immigration views, will find a Department of Homeland Security transformed since he was its deputy secretary in the Obama administration. Liberal immigration activists and former Trump administration officials rarely agree on much, but both parties say Mayorkas will struggle to get buy-in for Biden’s immigration agenda from the thousands of border and immigration agents in his sprawling, 240,000-person department.
“There are people in ICE that agree with Trump’s policies,” said Tom Homan, an immigration hard-liner who served as Trump’s ICE director. “They want to do the job they took an oath to do.”
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, the policy counsel the American Immigration Council, which advocates on behalf of immigrants, agreed that after “four years of a newly empowered and politicized workforce,” ICE and Customs and Border Protection agents are “more likely to push back against an incoming administration than in the past.”
Biden campaigned on bringing accountability to the government’s immigration agencies, but he is already facing a daunting challenge in overhauling a department that was unmatched in how closely it aligned with Trump.
Videos celebrating Trump’s “big, beautiful” border wall are still featured on the Customs and Border Protection website. A fictionalized video by the agency that shows Trump’s depiction of migrants as feared criminals is still on the Border Patrol’s official social media channels. And the union representing ICE agents — whose top leaders were enthusiastic supporters of Trump — has signaled that it does not intend to accept all of the new administration’s reversals of his policies.
Those agents may have gotten a lift in the waning days of Trump’s administration, when Trump loyalists tried to codify the influence of those unions. The day before Biden’s inauguration, union leaders signed a labor agreement with Kenneth Cuccinelli, an immigration hard-liner and the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, that requires ICE’s political leadership to consult with the union on policy decisions.
If the agreement stands, it could undercut Biden’s directives to the enforcement agency, including guidance that took effect on Monday requiring ICE officers to focus arrests on violent offenders.
“They are not going to be able to get people to change their deeply held convictions,” Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s immigration policies, said of many career officials at the Homeland Security Department. “They are going to make painfully clear to the politicals what the consequences are going to be if their advice is not followed.”
The emergence of an emboldened resistance inside the Biden administration is not limited to the homeland security agencies. Pockets of government employees loyal to Trump and his agenda remain ensconced in other parts of the bureaucracy.
Andrew Veprek, an ally of Miller’s and once the deputy assistant secretary of state for refugees and migration, has been succeeded by a veteran of President Barack Obama’s administration. But Veprek, a career Foreign Service officer, has returned to the State Department.
Michael Ellis, a Trump loyalist, was named as the top lawyer for the National Security Agency in the days before Biden took office. He has been put on administrative leave while his appointment is investigated, but he remains an employee of the agency. And at the Justice Department, there are still career lawyers who defended many of Trump’s policies, including the separation of families at the border.
Biden also faces the politically fraught choice of whether to remove two inspectors general appointed by Trump: Eric Soskin, the inspector general of the Transportation Department and Brian Miller, a former Trump White House lawyer tapped last year to investigate abuses in pandemic spending.
Not everyone working for Mayorkas will reject the new approach.
Some officials in the Homeland Security Department grew frustrated at the revolving door of acting leadership within the agencies under Trump’s administration. And one division of ICE that investigates longer-term cases into traffickers and terrorists even asked to separate from the immigration agency so it would not be connected to Trump’s effort to crack down on undocumented immigrants.
Shortly after he was confirmed Tuesday, Mayorkas wrote to his employees pledging his support and relaying his expectations. “We will act with integrity and humility,” Mayorkas said in an email obtained by The New York Times. “We will be open, transparent and accountable.”
Still, Miller noted, “It’s going to be most intense at DHS.”
Homan said morale at the agency had been “flushed down the toilet” since Biden began issuing executive orders in the past two weeks, and he predicted that some in the bureaucracy would seek to undermine the new president.
Reichlin-Melnick, whose organization has challenged Trump’s policies in the court system, said it would be critical for Mayorkas and Biden to ensure that their directives were actually followed by the rank and file in the department.
“The next month or two are really going to be formative for the administration,” he said.
That might be too long for some immigrants. ICE deported nearly 350 undocumented immigrants to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador on Friday, the agency said in a statement.