But a month into Becerra’s tenure, officials working on the issue have privately questioned his preparedness for managing such a sprawling emergency — and his willingness to take ownership of a historically intractable and politically divisive problem.
“He did not fully appreciate the issue when he first came in,” said one senior administration official. “It’s been a steep learning curve for him.”
Dismayed by the slow progress, the White House has concluded that Becerra’s team needs help organizing care for the rising number of migrant children spread throughout shelters administered by the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement — a population that’s fast approaching 20,000.
That scrutiny grew on Friday, after Biden opted to keep in place a historically low cap on refugee admissions. Some advocates blamed the decision on the administration’s struggles in processing unaccompanied minors, even though they are handled through a separate system.
Mark Weber, an HHS spokesperson, conceded that there have been tensions within the administration over the effort, but disputed criticisms of Becerra‘s role as inaccurate and unfair.
“Suggesting he doesn’t have a grasp on the issue … that is not apparent from the inside,” he said, adding that Becerra is deeply engaged and meets several times a day with his senior leadership team to discuss the increase in migrant children at the border. “You don’t get to be nominated to be HHS secretary unless you know what’s going on.”
The White House has repeatedly refused to characterize the rise of unaccompanied children as a “crisis,” even as border arrivals far surpass prior increases seen during the Obama and Trump administrations.
But Dawn O’Connell, a well-regarded aide to Becerra on the coronavirus response, is now splitting time working on the migrant situation because of her prior experience managing the Obama-era spike in migrant arrivals. Kate Wolff, a former Obama administration chief of staff at the refugee office, has also recently rejoined HHS to advise on the issue.
Top Biden officials are weighing adding more specialists to Becerra’s immediate office, as well as throughout FEMA, which the White House tasked with helping the health department secure additional shelter space.
HHS’ emergency preparedness office and parts of the Department of Defense are also now helping to house and then quickly place migrant children with parents or other sponsors throughout the country.
“On every front they’re confronted with challenges that are more than a little bit outside their comfort zone,” the senior administration official said of the refugee office. “We’re trying to build a scaffolding around them to account for or mitigate some of their own gaps, because in some ways it’s just a completely different culture.”
The health department is releasing just over 300 children a day to sponsors on average, a figure that officials say needs to be closer to 1,000 to keep pace with the anticipated rush of unaccompanied kids coming into the U.S. — and to minimize the time spent in the detention facilities where the children are first taken.
In March, more than 18,800 unaccompanied children crossed the border, Customs and Border Protection statistics show, representing a near doubling from February and a new all-time high. It’s a record likely to be eclipsed within weeks; several hundred children per day have arrived at the border so far this month.
The administration has spent the last two months trying to scale up its capacity, opening a dozen new emergency shelters and soliciting volunteers across the government — from NASA to the Environmental Protection Agency — to staff them.
Additional staff from HHS and the Department of Homeland Security have been assigned solely to case management, to speed placement of children with sponsors. Thousands more officials are being sent to shelters and to the border to aid the process.
But they first require training, which has slowed the pace of reinforcements. And even though health officials have streamlined their placement process, children are still spending more than a month on average in HHS’ care.
“We are frustrated with the speed with which HHS is reacting to the flow of unaccompanied children,” said a person familiar with the situation. “There’s enough blame to go around, but we hope HHS would be out front on this.”
Weber said the department has ramped up its response in the face of unprecedented challenges, including pandemic precautions that have limited shelter beds and a Trump-era hiring freeze that left the refugee office understaffed. Indeed, transfers from detention facilities to HHS-run shelters have begun to pick up in recent days, more than halving the number of children held at the border from a March high of around 5,700.
“HHS is a child welfare agency, not an immigration agency,” Weber said. “Doing that due diligence in a time of great influx adds to the complexity, and so we’re making sure that continues to happen in a way that unifies kids safely and with all due speed.”
In an interview, Pope stressed that “from the president on down, everybody is very concerned” about the need to more quickly transfer migrant children out of border facilities. But she added that accomplishing that requires the health department to be more resourceful.
“There are ways to solve for it, but they’re all requiring the agency to be a lot more creative and do things in a different way,” she said, “and figure out how we meet our fundamental moral and legal obligations to these kids, but do so in a way that doesn’t leave them languishing.”
Becerra’s allies on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, have recently expressed worry that the administration is using him as a scapegoat for its border woes, even as the ongoing challenges cut across several agencies and officials’ purview.
The growing scrutiny amounts to an inauspicious start for Becerra, a celebrated former California attorney general with little health policy experience who nevertheless entered the administration ready to take a leading role in the pandemic response and fulfill President Joe Biden’s ambitious health agenda.
Instead, Becerra got stuck managing one of Biden’s biggest problems: a crisis that shows no signs of abating and for which there are no easy solutions. That challenge, combined with Covid-19, has consumed his first weeks. More than a month into his tenure as health secretary, Becerra has yet to lay out a comprehensive vision for the department.
“He’s one of the busiest — if not the busiest — men in government, given his agency’s portfolio,” said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of the advocacy organization Immigration Hub and a former senior policy adviser to then-Sen. Kamala Harris. “He’s had to start his job running on a lot of different fronts.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who has scolded the administration repeatedly over its immigration stumbles, also downplayed criticism of Becerra, arguing that he has perhaps the most difficult job of any official working on the issue.
“You can’t just warehouse kids,” he said. “You’ve got to provide the education, the food, where they sleep, where they have recreation. All that is just hard work.”
For all the work ongoing inside HHS, Becerra has so far kept himself well out of the spotlight. A son of Mexican immigrants who once said their experiences shaped everything he did, he’s largely refrained from commenting publicly on the situation at the border, and has yet to visit an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter. On Capitol Hill, congressional aides said Becerra has not been consistently involved in briefing lawmakers on the border situation. Those discussions are instead usually led by White House officials.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which Becerra chaired during his time in Congress, has sought a meeting with him to discuss a range of issues, including the rise in unaccompanied children. But a caucus aide said they have been unable to settle on a date. In the interim, ORR representatives have briefed caucus staffers weekly on their work. Members also recently met with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Some Democrats, including New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, defended HHS’ progress so far, arguing that the administration has had to rebuild a system weakened by former President Donald Trump. Biden aides have accused Trump officials of knowing an influx of unaccompanied children was coming, yet waiting until just days before Biden’s inauguration to take action.
But Becerra’s low-key approach has raised suspicions among some involved in the immigration effort that he is reluctant to be seen as owning the issue, lest he become the face it. GOP lawmakers have targeted Becerra over immigration issues before, highlighting his past support for extending health care to undocumented immigrants.
“This is his agency. They’ve done a particularly terrible job, and he doesn’t want to get blamed for it,” one person familiar with the situation vented.
Weber, the department spokesperson, rejected the suggestion, and added that Becerra would likely soon travel to some of the shelters. Others chalked up Becerra’s public absence to his need to juggle a slew of pressing issues across HHS and his status as a relative newcomer, having been one of the last Cabinet officials confirmed by the Senate.
“I’m sure later on, when he starts talking about health care and affordable health care, you’re going to see him all over the place,” said Cuellar, who has spoken multiple times with Becerra about the rise in unaccompanied children. “But for this one, he’s taking the right approach, and that approach is put your head down, do your work.”
The work is likely to continue for the next several months, threatening to bog down Becerra’s health agenda by forcing him to manage the fallout of policies set by agencies outside his purview. He wouldn’t be the first health secretary to become mired in a border crisis: Trump’s HHS Secretary, Alex Azar, was saddled with reuniting children and parents after immigration officials imposed a family separation policy.
In Becerra’s case it would amount to a mirror image, managing the influx of children after the Biden administration reversed the Trump approach of immediately expelling unaccompanied minors.
“In the long run, the answers have to be addressing underlying issues in the countries that children are coming from,” said Mark Greenberg, a former Obama HHS official now at the Migration Policy Institute. “But that’s just not something that can be done quickly.”
The health department has already signed contracts collectively worth more than $500 million for staffing and services for children in its care, and is scouting additional emergency shelters in California. It’s also streamlined the process for unifying children, such as waiving most background checks for close relatives who live in the same household as their sponsor.
In a congressional hearing on Thursday, Becerra blamed the Trump administration for having “dismantled” much of the infrastructure of ORR, and warned that providing a range of services has “become more taxing, more difficult because the spaces that we’re finding are fewer and fewer to be found.” While he stressed the need to quickly move children out of ORR shelters, Becerra cautioned the need to ensure it’s done responsibly.
Though Biden has tasked Harris with tackling the root causes of migration through the southern border, and Mayorkas has emerged as the primary defender of the administration’s policies, officials have made clear that Becerra is responsible for managing the influx of migrant children — and critically, for minimizing the potential the White House will face damaging images of kids crowded into sparse border facilities.
“We’re having to deal with fewer licensed beds, but more kids,” Becerra said at the hearing, in a nod to the scale of his department’s difficulties. “You can see how it’s become a challenge. But we’re doing it.”