Xavier Becerra spent decades urging congressional leaders to support liberalized legal immigration. But he’s sounding a different note as Health secretary, responsible for caring for upwards of 21,000 migrant children.
Becerra has argued for maintaining the historically low Trump-era cap on refugee admissions to the U.S., according to two people with knowledge of the matter, for fear of stretching the already-thin resources of his department’s refugee office.
His insistence on a more cautious approach to immigration policy has, moreover, contributed to his shaky standing with some quarters of a fast-paced White House where senior aides have spent weeks pressing the Health department to speed its intake of thousands of children at the southern border, and bristled at what friends and skeptics alike described as Becerra’s at times deliberate manner.
“He cares about raising the caps — but let’s take one challenge at a time,” one person close to Becerra said of his mindset. “Emotionally, he’s there. But he’s always a pragmatist.”
President Joe Biden in April initially agreed to keep the refugee limit in place, siding with Becerra and overruling top officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken. But the blowback from immigration advocates and Democrats on Capitol Hill was immediate and intense, and Biden has since reversed course.
Becerra in the meantime has been privately frustrated by the White House’s rush to ease a series of immigration guardrails well before he was confirmed to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, allies said, including a key decision to allow unaccompanied immigrant children to remain in the country.
The moves contributed to the already-growing buildup at the southern border, and have since saddled Becerra with managing the fallout from a record influx of asylum seekers.
HHS is one of several departments working to manage the flow of migrants, including the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA. Homeland Security sets the administration’s border policies, meaning the Health department can do little more than deal with the ripple effects of those decisions.
That responsibility for caring for unaccompanied children has landed chiefly on HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which also handles foreigners seeking refugee status, though the two operations are not intertwined.
The Health department is now spending tens of millions of dollars per week to shelter a rising population of unaccompanied kids, as it races to secure new emergency sites and lock down a range of support services for children spending a month on average in federal care. In April, HHS told congressional lawmakers it will transfer or reprogram $1.3 billion toward the effort, which would be drawn from emergency supplemental funding and other parts of the department, according to a person familiar with the situation.
There are signs the administration is making strides: As few as 600 migrant children a day are sitting in jail-like border patrol facilities, administration officials said — a dramatic drop from the roughly 5,500 held at the end of March and a consequence of HHS’ buildout of its capacity to quickly process and house children.
The department has added a dozen emergency shelters and pulled more than 1,000 volunteers from across the government to staff sites and act as case managers. And it has cut the time it takes to discharge kids to guardians around the country by setting up virtual interviews and streamlining the vetting process, nearly doubling the number of children released in April, compared with March.
“Under [Becerra’s] leadership, HHS has made significant progress in bringing new facilities online and reducing the number of children in [Customs and Border Protection] facilities,” White House Domestic Policy chief Susan Rice said in a statement.
An HHS spokesperson touted an exhaustive effort made to overcome Trump-era policies that left the department with limited ability at the outset to handle such a rapid rise in unaccompanied children.
“On the heels of inheriting significant challenges, from severe capacity limitations tied to the pandemic to destructive 2018 policy choices thwarting case management work, we’ve worked around the clock across the administration to make significant strides,” the spokesperson said.
But the intensive operation has pulled energy from other policy priorities and dented morale within the department, adding to the challenges HHS leaders face as they try to staff up and coordinate their largely remote workforce. There is also no clear end in sight — officials said Thursday they’ve continued to see “large flows” of refugees at the border.
For Becerra, a relative latecomer as one of Biden’s last Cabinet officials to be confirmed, it represents an early and steep management test. And it comes after years in Congress and state government as a vocal immigrant-rights advocate who pressed both Democratic and Republican administrations to take more aggressive efforts to overhaul the immigration system and “open the doors of opportunity” for those coming to the U.S. Becerra frequently invokes the experiences of his immigrant Mexican parents and once chided fellow Latinos for “running from their heritage” in advocating for tough immigration restrictions.
As a freshman congressman from Los Angeles, Becerra put himself on the map by going toe-to-toe with a senior Democrat over his attempt to slash benefits for immigrants. He later became a thorn in the side of the Clinton White House, the person close to Becerra said, by repeatedly urging top officials to appoint more Latinos.
And after years spent rising through the House Democratic ranks, Becerra famously battled the Obama administration over an attempt to secure health benefits for undocumented immigrants in the Affordable Care Act — deriding then-President Barack Obama’s opposition as “more than disturbing.”
In early 2016, Becerra challenged GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio over their hardline immigration rhetoric, accusing them of being reluctant to “say who they are.”
“It feels like they’re running from their heritage in my book,” he said. “I’m just pointing out the real hypocrisy in immigration and to have two candidates who seem to run from who they are and make it difficult to get things done.”
That aggressive style would foreshadow his tenure as California attorney general, where he became a chief antagonist of the Trump administration, taking legal action against nearly every one of its major immigration policies.
“It’s a personal issue for him,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and a friend of Becerra’s. “As he has seen the plight of today’s immigrants, I know that he sees in these immigrants his parents’ experiences.”
Yet since joining the administration, Becerra has taken a more measured approach to managing the swelling ranks of unaccompanied children arriving at the border — urging patience as his department sought to bring under a control an emergency further complicated by Covid-19 restrictions and a Trump-era hollowing out of the refugee office.
That process has irked some in the White House, people familiar with the dynamics said, who believed initially Becerra was indecisive and too slow to seize the reins in the midst of an all-hands-on-deck moment. The sentiment has lingered even as HHS has ramped up its response.
Others chalked up his rough start to the sheer difficulty of getting up to speed on a complex situation, while also juggling dozens of other pressing responsibilities and getting familiar with the rhythms of the federal government.
“He was a step behind as he started and had to deal with what was already done,” a Becerra ally said, referring to the earlier decision to let unaccompanied children stay in the country. “There’s just a lot on the plate right now.”
For all his decades of work on immigration issues, Becerra has appeared eager to avoid getting bogged down on it now. A month-and-a-half into his tenure, he has yet to visit an HHS shelter, though a spokesperson said he plans to in the “coming days.” He has instead spent the past couple of weeks publicly attending to Biden’s core health agenda — chiefly promoting the administration’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign and selling the benefits of the president’s sweeping American Families Plan.
Still, he has privately played an increasingly hands-on role in staying on top of the growing number of kids in his care — going as far in some cases as personally working the phones in search of potential new shelter facilities, and pressing old Capitol Hill colleagues for on-the-ground readouts about the administration’s progress.
“He’s learned now, he’s responsible,” said the person close to Becerra. “All he can do is deal with what shows up at his doorstep.”