Migrant Surge Worsened by Trump Lack of Planning, Watchdog Says

  • DHS jettisoned interagency border plans in 2019
  • Report calls on almost 20-year-old agency to ‘mature’

The Trump Homeland Security Department drew criticism from an agency watchdog for abandoning plans to manage a surge of migrants at the U.S. southern border — decisions now reverberating through the Biden administration’s response to a new surge.

DHS under Trump ignored an agency plan for responding to a migrant surge, leading to an overwhelmed system and detainees held in facilities longer than the 72-hour limit, the Homeland Security Inspector General wrote in a new report.

The DHS was aware of a potential wave of migrants and “had both a multicomponent task force in place at the border and a plan for land migration surges, but used neither during the 2019 surge,” the inspector general’s office wrote.

The agency also scrapped in late 2019 an internal planning process meant to guide the next three years of border management policies, the report said.

The watchdog’s review comes as the Biden administration scrambles to respond to another surge of migrants at the Southern border. The administration has faulted the Trump administration’s border policies for the lack of preparedness. Congressional Republicans instead cite President Joe Biden ‘s approach to immigration.

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Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
Mexican asylum seekers wait to register at a migrant camp at the U.S.-Mexico border on Feb. 23, 2021, in Matamoros, Mexico.

“They have created this increased incentive to come to the border without putting anything in place,” Rob Portman (Ohio), the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said about Biden’s immigration policies during a press call Tuesday. “If you’re going to change your policies if it’s going to incentivize more people, you should be prepared for it.“

Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have both urged migrants not to come to the border, but the administration is accepting unaccompanied children and processing some asylum claims.

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Over-Capacity Facilities

Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities were over capacity by March 2019, while Border Patrol facilities in some cases detained almost two to three times their capacity along the Southwest border.

Had the Trump administration followed a 2015 Obama administration plan, ICE should have increased bed space to meet the demands of Customs and Border Protection apprehensions. ICE began adding beds in March 2019, but most of the added capacity wasn’t availableuntil June 2019 or later, the IG found.

The administration also sidelined a plan created throughout 2019 by a Defense Department/DHS Southwest Border Interagency Planning Team. The DHS Office of Policy told the IG the plan to address those issues was “no longer being worked on” by December 2019 because it no longer served the needs of the agency, even though the factors that led to capacity issues at CBP and ICE facilities still existed.

“The inefficiencies created by DHS’ fragmented approach to migrant processing are not new, and they will continue to recur without strong leadership and vision for truly unified operations within DHS,” the Office of Inspector General wrote.

“At almost 20 years old, DHS must mature past individual agreements and relationships created to accommodate systemic fragmentation, and truly approach its border mission as ‘one DHS’,” the report added.

A DHS spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment. The DHS accepted the recommendations made by the IG in the formal agency response within the report.

With assistance from Alex Ebert

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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