Posted on February 12, 2024

How Biden Botched the Border

Alex Thompson and Stef W. Knight, Axios, February 12, 2024

Aboard Air Force One en route to tour the southern border in January 2023, President Biden sat at the head of his conference table and exploded with fury.

  • The president lit into his team, which included then-Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, Homeland Security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall and other immigration officials. He demanded obscure immigration data points — and vented when his staff didn’t have them handy.

Why it matters: The previously unreported meeting, recounted to Axios by three people familiar with the events, is emblematic of the Biden administration’s struggle with the border crisis during the past three years — infighting, blame-shifting and indecision.


  • The rolling chaos along the border has grown to the point that Biden now is embracing immigration policies he ran against in 2020 — such as restricting asylum laws and suggesting he’ll “shut down” the border — as the crisis threatens his re-election.


Zoom in: The crisis grew slowly. Many administration leaders treated the issue like a hot potato because it was politically thankless, several sources in and out of government told Axios.


National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, whose office hasn’t historically taken on many border issues, left much of his border portfolio to Sherwood-Randall, who had little experience on the issue.

  • A sign of her inexperience came early on, when she asked an official on her team for a memo explaining the difference between refugees and asylum seekers, according to a person familiar with the request.
  • Sherwood-Randall keeps a low profile compared to several of her predecessors, who were regulars on Sunday shows. She’s been an internal advocate for tough enforcement of migration policiessources tell Axios.


Between the lines: Warring ideologies inside the White House and the Democratic Party also slowed decision-making

  • Some officials wanted policies designed to punish or deter people who crossed the border illegally. Others — including vocal immigration advocates outside the administration — pushed to reform asylum policies and expand legal pathways for migrants to stay in the U.S., sources said.
  • The White House’s immigration team also saw constant turnover.
  • As a result, “the strategy was incoherent from the very beginning,” said one former Biden White House official involved in immigration policy.

The internal turmoil led to contradictory actions by Biden’s team.

  • Biden stopped kicking out asylum seekers under Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program, but for years continued to use pandemic-era restrictions known as Title 42 to send asylum seekers back to Mexico.
  • The administration extended temporary protections for Venezuelans in the U.S. — and weeks later, announced plans to deport Venezuelans for the first time in years.
  • Biden’s team stopped holding undocumented families in U.S. detention centers — a practice under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump — in favor of monitoring people using ankle bracelets and other technology.
  • Then, as conditions worsened, Biden considered restarting the detention program.

The White House generally didn’t want to talk publicly about immigration or the border for much of Biden’s first three years, feeling it would draw attention to a political vulnerability, sources said.

  • White House officials limited and pushed against having Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas or other immigration officials appear on TV until a few months ago.
  • Publicly, the White House also initially downplayed jumps in illegal border crossings as normal “ebbs and flows” — even as some internally pushed to acknowledge that the problem was significant.
  • Some former administration officials believe the strategy provided an information vacuum — that was filled by Biden’s critics.


How we got here: Keeping promises he made during the 2020 campaign, Biden signed several immigration-related executive orders in his first weeks in office, undoing many of Trump’s border restrictions before much of Biden’s immigration team was in place or settled.

  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a 100-day moratorium on migrant deportations on Biden’s first day — despite some senior officials’ concerns.
  • Mayorkas — now facing impeachment by the GOP-led House over the border situation — said at the time that he opposed Biden’s moratorium, according to people familiar with his comments during the transition.


Zoom out: Border officials and experts have long warned about the ways smugglers use and manipulate information about U.S. policies to encourage people to migrate.

  • In early 2021, the new Biden administration was surprised by rapidly climbing numbers of children and teens crossing the border illegally.
  • Photos of women and kids crowded inside Border Patrol tents led critics to compare Biden’s border policies to the “kids in cages” attacks on Trump. “It was a panic,” one former Biden official said.
  • Biden became most personally engaged on border issues when children were at risk, multiple sources said.

Infighting broke out among those on Biden’s team.

  • Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice emerged as a central — and controversial — coordinator of the administration’s approach to the border.
  • Some officials found her needlessly combative and disagreed with her policy-wise. But even many of her critics credit her with taking on more responsibility on the border at a time when most other top Biden officials were shying away from it.
  • There was — and still is — deep animosity toward Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra for what was seen as his reluctance to find more space in child migrant shelters, which are overseen by HHS, according to several sources familiar with the dynamics.
  • Rice referred to Becerra as a “bitch-ass” and privately called him an “idiot,” according to multiple sources.