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The Disillusionment of a Young Biden Official

The Disillusionment of a Young Biden Official

There were enough votes in the Senate for the bill to pass, but the odds were slimmer in the House, which the Republicans controlled. Chuck Schumer, one of the bill’s Democratic sponsors, was trying to turn up the pressure on John Boehner, the House Speaker, by securing more votes. He brokered a deal with two Republican senators, from North Dakota and Tennessee, who wanted the government to hire an additional twenty thousand Border Patrol agents. For these senators it was pure optics; they’d support the bill as long as they could appear to strengthen “border security.” Flores, being from the borderlands herself, considered the move bad politics and worse policy. “You do it because you have a pretty racialized view of the border,” Flores said. “You do it because you’re accepting the Republican framework.”

The immigration-reform bill, which would have conferred legal status to eleven million undocumented immigrants, passed the Senate on Flores’s twenty-fifth birthday. But it quickly became clear that Boehner would refuse to hold a vote on it in the House. “One of the happiest days of my career was also the saddest,” Flores later wrote, in a book chapter about her time in the Obama White House. “Even though we had made the enormous compromise,” she said, “no amount of harsh enforcement from Democrats would convince Republicans.”

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In 2015, Flores joined Hillary Clinton’s campaign, while also attending law school at Columbia University. The tone inside the campaign, she said, was combative, bitter, and endlessly calculating. Advisers deliberated at great length about whether it made sense to call Trump an outright racist, or if embracing Black Lives Matter would alienate voters. It was considered a settled matter, she said, that the candidate shouldn’t emphasize “immigration issues, Latino issues, or women’s issues” until after the Iowa caucuses. (A representative for the Clinton campaign called this account “patently false,” noting that the candidate “mentioned these issues regularly, and in both tone and frequency never shied away.”)

Flores has always been much less of an agitator than some of her peers assume her to be based on her identity. “It’s O.K. if immigration’s not an electoral issue,” she told me, describing her outlook at the time. “It’s not a universal issue for Americans. But we should have a plan and be able to answer what we’ll do.” During the campaign, she was frequently chastised for “being too close to the issue.” One superior told her, “You just don’t understand politics.”

The years that followed Clinton’s defeat demonstrated just how personal Flores’s professional interests were. She was in Washington, in August, 2019, when a white nationalist opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, killing twenty-three people and injuring some two dozen others. Almost all of the victims were Mexican or Mexican American. The shooter, who’d allegedly written a manifesto that echoed Trump’s rhetoric, was targeting Latinos. The Walmart that he chose to terrorize was known, in this stretch of the borderlands, as “the Mexican Walmart.” The strip mall where it was situated attracted shoppers from Mexico and nearby cities, including Las Cruces. Flores’s parents had planned to eat lunch across the street that very afternoon. “That’s the mall we’ve been going to my whole life,” she told me. “There was a victim that day named Maria Flores, which is my mom’s name.”

No one from Flores’s family was hurt, but it was clear that Trump was making life at the border more dangerous. “There was always this feeling that I could go home and feel safe again,” Flores said. “When you see what happened in El Paso, it destroyed that vision for me. When we dehumanize people at the border, my community gets dehumanized in the process. In this environment, it becomes a security risk for all of us.”

After the El Paso massacre, Flores joined the A.C.L.U., becoming the organization’s deputy director of immigration policy. She’d always been an impassioned critic of Trump, but now she had a national platform. “The President is hellbent on exploiting a public health crisis to achieve his long-held goal of ending asylum at the border,” she said, in a May, 2020, statement about Title 42. “He’s also doubling down on fear-mongering against immigrants, so many of whom are essential workers during this crisis. Do not be fooled.”

Around this time, Flores was contributing to early discussions among the Biden transition team. Cecilia Muñoz, who was tapped to lead part of the process, had brought her on to discuss immigration policy. Jake Sullivan, who would become Biden’s national-security adviser, saw the issue as a top priority. It was “an extremely receptive audience,” Flores told me. “They were following family separation. They had a high awareness of M.P.P. They were really concerned with what they were watching in Europe—how right-wing politicians were using immigration as a political tool to win elections, just as Trump had. There was an understanding that immigration was becoming this democracy issue.”

When Flores was hired at the National Security Council, in January, 2021, one of the first things she was told was that “we’re not going to end Title 42, but we are going to end M.P.P.” From an operational standpoint, she accepted the need for a cautious approach. “It was understood that the numbers [of arriving migrants] were going to go up, and it was understood that we didn’t have the facilities to deal with them,” she said. “You couldn’t reverse everything on Day One. The whole ecosystem would have collapsed.”

There were advantages to starting with M.P.P. The population it affected was large but finite. Everyone was known to the government. The challenge was finding them, explaining what was happening, testing them for Covid, and then “paroling” them into the U.S., through an official port of entry, for a future court hearing. At the start of the pandemic, the Trump Administration had virtually stopped processing people for asylum, so the White House was starting from scratch. Members of the transition suggested bringing in U.N. agencies to help deal with some of the logistics. “Smart politics, smart operations,” Flores said. “I was excited. I was nervous. How do you do this in an orderly way that doesn’t trigger more migration during a pandemic?”

During the Trump years, a network of faith leaders, shelters, and legal-service providers had “assumed a quasi-governmental function” at the border, Flores said. These were groups like the Florence Project, Jewish Family Services, Annunciation House, and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Some officials at D.H.S. were wary of working with advocacy groups, but Flores wanted to partner with them. “They knew the people who were waiting in M.P.P. by name,” she said. “They knew their stories. They knew what they’ve been through.” Each section of the border is a world unto itself—the dynamics in the Rio Grande Valley are different from those in West Texas—and no one had a better sense of these locales than the advocates working there. Flores told me, “You go to the groups serving each sector, and have a sector lead for San Diego, for Arizona, and so on. You had to look at the border in pieces, instead of just one border-wide approach.”

In February, 2021, when the process was set to begin, it was the border groups, rather than skeptics inside the Administration, who told Flores that the government wasn’t ready. They advised her to scale back the initial plans and to narrow the first group of asylum applicants that she planned to bring across the border. On February 19th, the Biden Administration paroled in twenty-seven people. “There were thirty thousand people who were eligible at that point, and we started with twenty-seven,” she told me. “It was a full seventy-two-hour affair for me, around the clock. We made sure these people were Covid-tested, that we put out explanations to the public about what was happening and about Covid protocols.” The opening move, though modest, served as a proof of concept for Flores’s approach. She scheduled sets of daily and weekly meetings on Zoom with allies in the White House, State Department, and D.H.S. Between twenty and thirty people were on every call, including some of the career officials who’d set up M.P.P two years before. Flores gave the project a name: the M.P.P. “wind-down.”

They started in San Diego, then planned to move on to El Paso, Brownsville, and Laredo. As Flores and her team were working, another humanitarian emergency began to play out: thousands of unaccompanied children were arriving at the border, overwhelming federal authorities. The meetings and daily coördination, however, helped Flores and her colleagues stay on track. “We were in such close alignment with the ports that D.H.S. could call me up and say we need to only do fifty people today, because we have a lot of kids coming through,” Flores told me. “We’d do that with enough lead time to give people an expectation.”

The Disillusionment of a Young Biden Official