Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on Biden- Harris Administration Immigration Policy

The White House

Via Teleconference

(July 28, 2021)

4:01 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you so much, Josh. Hello, everyone, and welcome. On behalf of the NSC, I’d like to welcome you to this call on migration strategy.

I’m going to introduce our speakers in a second, but I just want to go over the ground rules. Today’s call and the content, as well as the factsheets that we’ll send out to you later, are on background and embargoed until tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m. or released by the White House.

For your reference, our speakers today are [senior administration officials]. As a reminder, again, our speakers today are going to be referred to as “senior administration officials.”

And with that, I will turn it over to our first senior administration official. Over to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Great. Thanks so much. Hi, everyone, and good afternoon.

Yesterday, we released a factsheet on the Biden administration’s blueprint for a fair, orderly, and humane immigration system. This administration launched a whole-of-government effort in January to responsibly manage the border and put in place immigration systems that align with our values.

The President also sent a bill to Congress that includes a path to citizenship, a proposal to manage the border and address the root causes of migration.

So, the blueprint yesterday includes four strategies: One, a humane and well-managed border. This includes strategic use of the $15 billion a year that CBC [CBP] receives and implementing expedited removal for families who do not express fear of return to their home country.

It includes orderly and fair processing of asylum seekers. This includes allowing asylum officers to adjudicate asylum claims and a dedicated asylum docket.

And then, what you’ll hear about today is collaborative migration management with regional partners and addressing the root causes of migration.

So, success in building a fair, orderly, and humane immigration system won’t come overnight, but we do have a blueprint to get us there.

And, with that, I’ll turn it over to [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. Thanks, everybody, for being on the call. Really appreciate this opportunity to chat.

I want to begin by underscoring a couple of things that [senior administration official] mentioned. You know, when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris came into office on January 20th, they really inherited a broken and dysfunctional system. And you all know the history there, but there were a number of problems that pre-existed the Trump administration, but the Trump administration made them so much worse. And many of the things that we’re trying to deal with now have been exacerbated by the decisions that were taken then.

Four months ago, in March, when President Biden asked Vice President Harris to take on the root causes — for her to look at what are the drivers of migration in Central America, and how can we execute diplomacy with these countries, develop assistance with these countries that will get at those primary factors that are causing people to leave their home, and how can we pair that up in an integrated approach, as [senior administration official] has just mentioned, with the other aspects of our approach to migration.

And it really is an integrated approach. You have to work on all aspects of this strategy if we’re going to be successful over the long term. So, all of them are important.

The root causes piece that the Vice President is working on, in some respects, is the long pole in the tent. It certainly is going to be the longest-term effort, and it is one that needs to work on multiple levels simultaneously.

The very first thing that the Vice President did when she took on this account was to deal with the very extreme humanitarian needs in the region. As you all know, there have been devastating hurricanes, COVID, the economic slump that had resulted in destroyed infrastructure, homelessness, food insecurity.

The Vice President put together a package of over $300 million of immediate humanitarian relief. We’ve already disbursed $250 million of that and have brought a lot of really essential relief to people throughout the region.

At the same time that she was taking that initial action on humanitarian relief, she also worked to lay the framework for extensive engagement. She worked intensively with the Cabinet, Congress, policy experts, civil society, philanthropic foundations, and foreign partners in both the region and around the world.

A couple of things that she produced that I want to highlight for you — and happy to come back in detail — but first, the United Nations is going to issue a humanitarian response plan in September. This is a direct result of the work that she and her team have done to — with all of the U.N. agencies, as well as the U.N. member states.

Second, the Vice President did extensive outreach with our international partners to highlight the needs of this region and to encourage responsible friends and allies to come forward. Many of them have — to include Japan, South Korea and Israel — to increase their aid, increase their engagement.

I believe the Japanese foreign minister is in Central America today as we speak. And there are a number of other countries, both within this hemisphere and around the world, who have said that they are eager to help, recognizing the need there.

Third, the Vice President issued a call to action to the private sector, getting some of our most prominent corporations to commit to make investments and also to provide philanthropic support into the region. There was an initial sort of steering group of 12 major corporations. We’ve had over 150 businesses express interest in participating in this very targeted program from private-sector businesses, and we’re very excited about that.

She also, as you know, engaged with the region itself, with the leaders in the region. She traveled to Mexico and Guatemala — as well as visited El Paso — and issued a number of really important initiatives there on anti-trafficking and anti-smuggling; also talked about a number of — launched a number of important assistance programs; and delivered very clear messages to the leaders of those governments about what our priorities were and what our expectations were. And I’m happy to come back to that.

And then, finally, a very important accomplishment of the Vice President is the strategy that we’re rolling out now. And I will turn it over to my colleague here to talk about the strategy. But just want to note that for this strategy to be successful, we will have to undertake sustained effort, which is both hard work over time, but also a very hardnosed approach to having an impact on the ground for the people of the region who are suffering so badly.

So, with that, let me turn it over to [senior administration official], who has been working on these issues for many years.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. Good afternoon, everybody. On the front end, I want to mention, as somebody who worked on this when Vice — when Vice President Biden was working on it during the Obama-Biden administration, and has had the privilege to also work with the Vice President and her team on this, I want to kind of underscore here that what we’re talking about here is much more than U.S. assistance package. As [senior administration official] highlighted, we’re looking at actually building a broader coalition that includes not just the U.S. government and its support, but members of the private sector, the foundations, the international community.

And in the process of the Vice President’s leadership and the development of the plan, we did a very thorough study of then-Vice President Biden’s efforts — what succeeded, so we could build on it; what areas we needed to actually innovate on and build upon. And that really has informed the development, not just of this strategy, but the Vice President’s engagement, and as [senior administration official] mentioned, the entire blueprint approach that includes migration.

So I’ll just go really quickly through the five pillars of the strategy.

The first is economic insecurity and inequality. And I’ll run through them quickly and can answer any questions. So the United States is working to promote a strong investment climate in these countries. We want to create jobs so that people want to stay home.

The rule of law, transparency, an independent and fair judiciary combating corruption — all of these elements are strong and vital to that (inaudible) climate. And as the Vice President made clear, economic growth should really be inclusive.

A point is — the point here is that we’re working with local communities to deepen resilience to the extreme weather events that will only become more common due to climate change, including innovations in climate-smart agricultural practices, all that will be necessary to support economic security.

Pillar number two is combating corruption, strengthening democratic governance, and advancing the rule of law. But I’ll just say that corruption corrodes the public trust, and as you all saw, there was a (inaudible) administration — administration-wide national security memorandum where combating corruption is really going to be central to everything that we do, not just in Central America.

Number three is promoting respect for human rights, labor rights, and a free press. The President and Vice President, I mentioned, were the most — it’s going to be the most pro-union administration in modern history. And labor rights is actually something that promotes economic prosperity in these countries.

And our work not just with governments, but I think underscoring our work with civil society is really central to all of this. And it’s important not to leave out, really, the importance of women and girls, as the Vice President highlighted during her visit to Guatemala, indigenous persons, Afro-descendants, LGBTQI+ persons, and persons with disabilities to make sure that we’re engaging with all members of society.

Number four is countering and preventing violence, extortion, and other crimes perpetrated by criminal gangs, trafficking networks, and other organized criminal organizations. It’s pretty straightforward, and I would just point out that that’s why the Vice President launched an anti-smuggling task force in both Mexico and Guatemala, and secured commitments to increase border enforcement in these countries.

Last but not least, combating sexual, gender-based, and domestic violence. Across the region, sexual and gender-based violence significantly hinders the ability of women and girls to participate fully in society and contribute to their families and communities. We know that femicide is something that is rampant in many countries in Central America and that the future prosperity of the region is really one that is invested in the success of women and girls. So it’s something that has been central to the Vice President’s approach.

Women and youth from marginalized communities often face higher levels of violence, especially LGBTQI+ women and girls. So we’re going to work with partner governments, civil society organizations, and others to combat violence in the region and to provide protection and services to those who suffer such violence.

So, I’ll turn it over to my colleague.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon, everyone. Great to have a chance to speak with you all.

So, I’m going to be talking to you about the Collaborative Migration Management Strategy, which is the first of its kind and a companion to the root causes strategy. It’s really premised on this idea that as we’re seeking to improve the conditions on the ground in Central America and build hope under the leadership of the Vice President, we understand that people will — there will continue to be a demand to migrate. And so, the CMMS addresses this head on.

We’re not seeking to end migration as part of the fabric of this region. We have so many familial, cultural ties in Central America. What we’re seeking to change the ways in which people migrate, to provide an alternative to the criminal smuggling and trafficking rings, and to give people access to opportunity and protection through safe legal channels, safe legal pathways.

We know that people are leaving the north of Central America for a wide variety of reasons, including seeking employment, seeking access to protection for people that are fleeing a lot of the underlying — the root causes that [senior administration official] mentioned, and then to reunite with family.

So, the goal is to match these legal pathways with these drivers — these various, distinct drivers of migration. So, we’ve been doing a lot of work, a lot of consultation with the people in the region, with civil society actors on the ground, with the governments, trying to deeply understand why people are making the choice to migrate and how can we make sure that we are addressing them in our strategy — our Collaborative Migration Management Strategy.

So, that’s a centerpiece of the CMMS that — is, you know, very ambitiously expanding access to legal pathways, both to the United States and to various other countries. And we’re doing a lot of work already to try to bring other countries to the table to multiply the number of legal pathways — countries like Canada, Costa Rica, Spain, and elsewhere. There’s actually a lot of momentum on that front, and it’s very encouraging.

These legal pathways are diverse, as I mentioned. It includes labor pathways; it includes expanding traditional resettlements and other protections pathways. It includes family reunification programs like the Central American Minors Program. That’s just the beginning of that kind of work.

And then legal pathways is just one piece of the CMMS. I won’t go through all of them, but you’ll see them tomorrow when we roll out the plan. There are eight lines of action in total.

So, just a few other highlights: You know, we’re looking to build on a lot of the work that’s already being done to strengthen asylum throughout the region in countries like Mexico and, again, Costa Rica so that, you know, people have various options where they can access international protection. Also, to strengthen protection mechanisms inside countries of origin for internally displaced persons, IDPs.

We’re looking to connect it to our legal pathways work to stand up migration resource centers — basically, physical structures where people can go to access this information and to be referred for legal pathways and other services in their countries. And then, we are — you know, the strategy calls for working with our partner governments in the region to foster secure management of borders and to strengthen regional public messaging on migration.

So, we’re really excited. And again, just to note, this is the first of its kind, and I think we really believe that with the combination of ambitious root causes and migration management strategy that we really and truly have an impact in this region.

Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We can open it up for questions. As a reminder to our participants, this call is on background, attributable to “senior administration officials.” The call contents are embargoed until 6:00 a.m. tomorrow.

Q Hey, thank you so much. Thanks for doing this call. A few questions. For [senior administration official], I was hoping you could answer, like, be a little more specific: How much of the $15 billion that was, I guess, for the wall will be redirected? What kind of things will it be redirected for? Are we talking drones, cameras? Does border agents come into that?

I was also hoping you could give an update on ending Title 42 and how will that — if and when it’ll be ended, how will it be ended? Will it be done by a phased approach?

And for [senior administration official], I was hoping you could talk a little bit about updates on how we’ll be supporting prosecutorial efforts in Central America? Would independent judges and prosecutors — is this — are there going to be something like trying to revive something like CICIG? If you could talk about that as well. Thank you so much.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. This is [senior administration official]. I can start. I don’t have anything to announce on Title 42. As we’ve said in the past, it’s a public health authority, and that authority rests with the CDC, and so we’ll continue to defer to them on those decisions.

On the border, the President’s FY22 budget request, I think, allocated a little over a billion dollars for technology and for ports of entry. So, I don’t have a number for you in terms of redirection of wall money. I can pull it for you afterwards. But we are prioritizing, as I said, technology and ports of entry.

With that, I’ll turn it over to [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Hey, Franco. Great to hear from you. Look, you saw the announcement when the Vice President traveled to Guatemala on an anti-corruption task force so — and you’ll see that actually delivers on a campaign commitment made by the President during the campaign. The rationale behind that is that organizations like CICIG took years to stand up, and we needed to act very quickly to do a couple things.

Number one, is, there are things that the United States can do in terms of investigations and prosecutions. You know we have officials that (inaudible) to pull visas, and we have the end goal list, which you’ve seen a lot on. And — but it also includes working with those judges and prosecutors that are ones that we see are having an active commitment to combatting anti-corruption efforts.

Others are — as you may have seen after the firing of Mr. Sandoval, the chief of FECI in Guatemala, that we have decided to suspend some assistance to the office of the Prosecutor General. We’re continuing some of those programs that we see are advancing these anti-corruption efforts, but others we are freezing. So, those are a whole host of tools on the anti-corruption side.

But again, I got to underscore here this is something that the Vice President has really made central is that our engagement with the private sector is also an anti-corruption initiative. Because what we’re trying to do is introduce new private-sector actors who are advocating for creating a transparent and business-friendly environment for investment, and that’s something that I think provides, like, a profit-proposition to anti-corruption efforts.

So, a lot of this is multifaceted, it’s individual, it’s working with governments, but also trying to go out of government-to-government channel by getting civil society and in the private sector involved.

Q Thank you. I have two quick questions. The first one to anyone who can respond. You were talking about the management of the borders. In the case of Mexico, the President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has just announced that he’s planning to integrate the National Guard under the conduction of the Secretary of Defense of Mexico.

There are several reports about human rights abuses of the immigrants by the National Guard of Mexico and also by the members of the Mexican army. Is the Biden administration worried about this change in terms of the National Guard of Mexico guarding the border — the south border of Mexico and the northern border of Mexico, trying to control the immigration flow, if there’s will be any complaints about the human rights situation?

And the second question is for [senior administration official]. In terms of the increase that were reported by the DHS about the arrest of illegal immigrants in the southern border of the United States, the numbers of Mexicans are going up. The government Mexico says — said recently that the economy of Mexico is better off than years — years before. Why do you guys see the reason that Mexicans are trying to cross illegally the northern border of Mexico to be in the United States if Mexico has a better economy now?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll take your first question there regarding Mexico border management. Just to note from the CMMS, you know, our pillar on that is, “to foster secure and humane management of borders.”

So, you know, I think we recognize the need to work with governments throughout the region in managing migration and addressing, you know, these irregular movements. But we certainly want to do that in a way that’s humane and upholds the dignity and the human rights of those who are making the journey.

And so, you know, that includes, for instance, in Mexico, ensuring that people that would be interdicted by the National Guard — you know, under Mexican law, that they would (inaudible) and have access to asylum in Mexico, through COMAR, their refugee commission.

So, you know, when we talk to Mexico and we discuss migration management, we also talked about the importance of access to asylum and protection. So just to note that we view this as some — the importance of that balance between enforcement and protection. And it’s a — it is written, explicitly, in our strategy.

Q Great. And, Jesús, hola. Good to — good to hear from you. So, there are a number of reasons why people choose to leave their homes — not just Mexico, but Central America and even increasing numbers of migrants from Venezuelan, Haitian, and Cuban origin. We’re seeing one of those elements is, of course, that we’ve all been through a pandemic for the last year-plus, and we’re still in there. And that there’s been a pent-up migration demand that we are starting to see.

And, frankly, that is one of the reasons why this administration is sharing — right now, I don’t have the exact count — but over 40 million vaccines with the countries of the region to try to be as responsive to a region that has been very hard hit by the impact of the pandemic.

The other — just on the — you know, and I can’t speak to what President López Obrador’s characterization of Mexican economy, but I’ll say that it’s in our interest for Mexico to prosper. And that, you know, the United States prospers when Mexico prospers and the other way around.

And, right now, assessments indicate that the U.S. economy is going to grow at 6.9 percent, at least. And that’s something that’s going to have incredible economic benefits for Mexico.

But, you know, GDP growth is one way to measure economic prosperity; inequality and economic opportunity is another one. And those are the conversations that the Vice President is really — in her meeting with President López Obrador, they talked about not just the trade relationship, but how to make sure that we’re investing in communities that — to ensure that we’re tackling together inequality, investing in Central America, and addressing the root causes of migration through various tools, including economic opportunity.

Q Thank you. My first question is for [senior administration official]. (Inaudible) economic insecurity and inequality, can you provide a concrete example of how exactly you plan on addressing that? For example, are you thinking about cash-based transfers?

And then a question for [senior administration official]: In terms of the strategy that you mentioned, how much of that is based on enforcement south of our border? Are you sending more DHS personnel? And how do you anticipate addressing those migrants who have to leave the region, urgently? For example, as you know with asylum seekers, they sometimes have to leave within a 24-hour window, if less. So how does this strategy address those migrants?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, Priscilla, great to hear from you. We can get you specific programs, but I think when we’re trying to address issues of inequality and economic opportunity, it’s the whole package. Right? So, it’s not just working on, you know, for example, investing in opportunity for women and girls by promoting entrepreneurship. Others are, obviously, tackling corruption in these countries and engaging with civil society so that we’re trying to level the playing field so that prosperity is determined not — not by where you’re born, but rather your — your work ethic.

And so there are a series of programs that we’re undertaking, but it’s more than just U.S. assistance. It’s making sure that we’re working closely with the private sector. We’re actually working with foundations to have a coordinated approach to how we tackle some of these issues.

But also, frankly, the — separate from foreign assistance, because no amount of foreign assistance is going to make a difference if these governments actually aren’t demonstrating political will — is making some very, sometimes, asks of these governments that may go against their own political interests on matters of corruption, on specific legislation, and a series of things that we’ve engaged on with all these governments and that are, I think, for us, part of the arrangement that if we’re going to make an argument for the U.S. taxpayer to support something like this, that the countries of the region are not just contributing their share, but also taking stepping up and advancing necessary reforms.

On the Haiti question, I’m going to ask my colleague to address just those migrants with an urgent need. So, right now, the — and you saw that the Special Envoy Dan Foote was announced last week. We went to Haiti a second time for the funeral of Moïse. Our focus is — is in a couple areas.

Number one is everything we can do to support the investigation. And so, we have, right now, these eight agents, including FBI, DHS, that are doing everything from tracing the weapons, cellphones, and the equipment of those individuals involved in the attack — in assassination of President Moïse.

And the second one is: What can we do to support Haitians and the Haitian National Police — their security needs? So, we have a list of requests that they’ve made. And Special Envoy Foote has — in the course of the meeting, they just came back — has been trying to figure out, in terms of the asks and actually needs assessment, what — you know, what we can actually do to be most responsive so that we’re supporting Haitian solutions to Haitian challenges, as opposed to, you know, coming as the United States and being prescriptive.

And so that includes the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations. We have the FBI, DEA, (inaudible) DOJ. But also, USAID is very actively engaged. We have a program with the World Food Program and doing an assessment of what more we can actually do.

Last point on this is that we have — we are working to expand U.S. aid of $6 million that they’re investing to expand our vaccination sites from 3 to 10. Right now, we’re in almost every different department in Haiti, and we’re working very actively to finalize the distribution of the 500,000 Moderna vaccines. But we’re also looking to see what more we can do to support — combat the pandemic in Haiti.

And so that, for us, is a kind of broad strategy, and the focus here is also to promote a broad and inclusive dialogue that includes civil society, as we’re trying to do everything we can to support the Haitian people.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you so much. On your question on how do we address people with urgent needs that needs to need access to protection right away, I think you hit on one of the biggest challenges with this. You know, with traditional resettlement, we know that it can often take a few years. And with Central America, frankly, there haven’t even been enough resettlement slots.

So we’re looking to not only expand the number of refugee admissions to the United States and to other countries, but look at ways in which we can address, sort of, you know, chokepoints in the resettlement process and ways that we can — you know, while upholding the integrity and the security elements of the program, you know, that we can — that we can make sure that we’re able to process people more quickly.

You know, there’s the Protection Transfer Arrangement in Costa Rica that is a way that people can be evacuated quickly — how can we expand that. And then, that’s, I think, where other countries that neighbor Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador really come in. We can — if we can expand complementary forms of protection to neighboring countries, I think that also can create an important — an important way that people can get somewhere safe quickly. So looking at temporary protection — you know, temporary protection programs that might be possible in Mexico or, you know, other countries in the neighborhood.

So, we hear you on that. And that’s, I think, a really — a big challenge, but something that we’re seeking to try to address wholeheartedly through this strategy.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you so much. Unfortunately, we’re out of time, but, again, we want to thank our participants and our speakers.

As a reminder, the ground rules: This call is on background and the contents of the call as well as the factsheet that we’ll send out later tonight is embargoed until 6:00 a.m. tomorrow or White House release. Our speakers will be referred to as “senior administration officials” for the purpose of the call.

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