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Ex-Trump Official Says Biden Administration Was Warned About Migrant Influx

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Biden administration is dealing with a surge of people coming to the U.S.-Mexico border, including many kids who are traveling alone. Biden blames the Trump administration for handing over broken immigration and asylum systems. But some people who worked for Trump say that's not true and that the Biden team is dismantling systems that worked. Here's former acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

CHAD WOLF: CBP would, in a sense, warn them, hey, if you remove this, this is the consequence for that, and we will see a significant uptick.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez talked to Wolf, and he has some details about that interview. Good morning, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: Chad Wolf resigned from his job just before Biden took office in January, and it is worth noting that he had some real problems.

ORDOÑEZ: Yes. As you note, you know, he was the acting secretary. He was nominated for the job, but he never got a vote in the Senate. And then a federal judge ruled in November that he was not serving lawfully in that role. Like several members of the Trump administration, he was controversial for some of his policies, including having suspended protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, which also, by the way, the court invalidated with its ruling.

KING: OK, so lots of problems with the courts. And now he is making claims about how the Biden administration is handling this crisis. What does he say?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, there is no question that the Trump administration had a different approach, but Wolf says the Biden team should have been better prepared. He says he and his staff briefed the Biden team and warned them that the numbers were increasing, starting back in September and October. Wolf told me that he gave leaders in the transition team an unvarnished view of the challenges and how they were tackling them and warned them about undoing measures that they had put in place following the last crisis in 2019.

WOLF: And we were telling them, this is what you will do. If you take down this, there's no capacity in Border Patrol stations. There's no capacity at HHS stations, you know, HHS facilities. You will begin to have a backup, and then here's the consequences to that.

ORDOÑEZ: And he's talking about these programs that included Remain in Mexico, removing unaccompanied minors and asylum agreements with Central America.

KING: Programs that President Biden quickly ended when he took office. What did Wolf say about that?

ORDOÑEZ: Not surprisingly, he took offense to the administration's claims that Trump handed over a broken system. He said the Trump administration in the first few years granted more asylum requests than previous administrations. And as for the border, Wolf emphasized the numbers likely would have increased anyway because they were already rising. But he argued the Biden administration's approach inflated the challenge.

WOLF: The administration is treating this as though it's a capacity issue and not an illegal behavior issue, and that's a fundamental difference. It's - if we throw enough resources or people or money at it, we can address a capacity issue. Well, if you do it that way, you're only encouraging more and more to come.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he said removing those programs, that was a message to the region and also to the smugglers that coming to the United States was easier than it was before.

KING: And I imagine the Biden administration disagrees.

ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely, very much so. I mean, the Biden officials describe this as a moral imperative. These policies that Wolf is advocating for and Biden ended were quite controversial, as you noted, and included reports of abuse and misuse. But the Biden administration has also been under growing pressure to address the number of migrants arriving at the border.

The challenge is they are trying to make a more - is sending a message that they have a more humane approach but, also, tell the rest of the region not to come. And some feel that those message conflict, though the White House disagrees. The White House says they've delivered a message very clearly in the region, and they're using - through radio ads and targeted social media placements that they say have reached millions of people. But as we know, the numbers of people coming to the border are still high.

KING: So the Biden administration is saying, don't come. People are coming anyway. What is the Biden administration doing to address that?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, a key thing they're doing is trying to move children out of jail-like border facilities. Unaccompanied children are arriving faster than they can find them beds in more appropriate shelters. They are trying to find them more space. They're using things like the San Diego Convention Center to hold unaccompanied minors so they're not sleeping in cells on the border. And Biden just sent three top officials to Mexico and Guatemala as part of longer-term efforts to tackle the root causes of migration.

KING: And on root causes, it's worth noting that successive presidents have dealt with this, and so the question of who is to blame may just be, like, a road to nowhere.

ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely. I mean, these surges appear to be cyclical. There was one in 2014 under President Obama. There was another in 2018, '19 under President Trump, even despite his very harsh policies. You know, it's all really complicated. In some ways, this issue is bigger than any one administration. And frankly, nobody yet has been able to crack it.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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