Days from the end of Donald Trump’s term, his administration rushed to push through possible legal land mines to make President Joe Biden’s goal of immigration reform more difficult.
Biden has outlined an ambitious immigration agenda that would reverse the actions of his predecessor, vowing, for example, to undo policies that largely sealed the US off to immigrants and halt construction of the border wall.
But the Trump administration was determined not to make it easy, according to multiple officials.
“Anything to make it difficult,” a Department of Homeland Security official told CNN.
“The political appointees in the immigration field are going to be working right down to the buzzer to complete as much as the President (Trump)’s agenda as possible because they know there’s going to be a scorched earth effort from the Biden administration to undo it,” one source familiar with the planning told CNN in the lead-up to the inauguration.
One of those efforts included striking agreements with some states and municipalities that would require the incoming administration to consult with jurisdictions before adopting or modifying immigration policies, according to an agreement obtained by CNN and earlier reported by BuzzFeed.
The agreement appears to give localities buy-in on immigration enforcement policy decisions and as a result, delay the rollout of new policies.
It is unclear if those agreements are legal or enforceable.
Over the past several weeks, career senior officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement made a point to keep track of the actions that will need to be undone by the Biden administration, a DHS official told CNN. Biden transition team members were “candid about being prepared to abandon current practices,” the official said.
At ICE, there was a scramble to get policies, like collecting DNA from non-cooperative individuals, out the door, but it’s unclear which of those policies were signed, according to two DHS officials.
There were also discussions about tapping another acting ICE director to execute on policies, but that received pushback, according to another DHS official. Tae Johnson, a career official, has been serving in the acting chief role following the resignation of Jonathan Fahey.
ICE did not respond to a request for comment.
Toward the end of the Trump administration, the White House also continued to push relevant federal agencies to obligate funds available for the wall regardless of whether land has been obtained for construction, CNN previously reported — a move seemingly intended to tie up funds prior to Biden taking office.
Legal agreements with states
The legal agreements issued by DHS are a key example of ways Trump officials tried to slow down the Biden administration’s future policy changes.
“DHS recognizes that Agency, like other states and municipalities, is directly and concretely affected by changes to DHS rules and policies that have the effect of easing, relaxing, or limiting immigration enforcement,” the agreement, signed by former second-in-command Ken Cuccinelli, reads.
DHS, the agreement says, will consult with localities “before taking any action or making any decision that could reduce immigration enforcement, increase the number of illegal aliens in the United States, or increase immigration benefits or eligibility for benefits for removable or inadmissible aliens.”
Rockingham County, North Carolina Sheriff Sam Scott Page, who signed the agreement, said, “With this agreement, I’m asking for notice, for communications and continued partnership with our federal partners.”
“When our new president comes, when President Biden is sworn in, he has a lot of responsibly, he has a lot of authority,” he added. “We want to be part of knowing when change is coming.”
John Sandweg, former acting ICE director, said written agreements with states or counties are not unprecedented, but called the recent moves “a pretty transparent effort to tie the hands of the Biden administration and give states opportunity to sue DHS.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Sandweg said. “I think these agreements are unlawful and unenforceable.”