It’s a White House shake-up that could have a major impact on the presidential campaign to come: Susan Rice, President Joe Biden’s long-serving domestic policy chief, is leaving the White House, per a Monday morning story from NBC News. Rice’s departure will put at least one significant matter in flux, as her legacy on the immigration policy portfolio extends through two Democratic presidencies. Before joining the Biden White House, she chaired the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. During this long tenure, her actions have put her at odds with migrant rights advocates, who may be inclined to welcome some fresh thinking.
Rice famously cleansed her West Wing office with burning sage after Biden’s team moved in, in the weeks following the January 6 Capitol riot. The office’s previous occupant was Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s controversial immigration czar behind four years of wildly xenophobic policies like the ill-fated Muslim ban and separating migrant parents from their children at the border. But migrant advocates might have hoped for a more significant improvement on the Trump White House: “She was one of the most anti-immigrant folks in the administration,” said immigrant rights activist Erika Andiola of Rice.
The criticism isn’t unfounded. Rather than undo Miller’s work, Rice has assiduously doubled down on some of Trump’s most impactful anti-immigrant policies, most notably the administration’s support for Title 42—the shambolic policy Donald Trump used to expel migrants as public health threats during the pandemic.
“They are panicked,” said a former Biden official, who declined to be named for this story, of the Rice-led domestic policy council. “All they care about is keeping the number down,” the source continued about the daily reports from the Homeland Security Department about encounters with migrants at the border.
Rice, along with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, has formed a bulwark against migrant relief policies while fighting to preserve—and, lately, build upon—Miller’s restrictionist legacy in the West Wing. As a result, Biden’s White House has struggled to retain Latina staffers assigned to its immigration policy portfolio. In February, Politico reported Lise Clavel, deputy assistant to the president and senior adviser for migration, and Leidy Perez-Davis, special assistant to the president for immigration, were jumping ship in the days after the White House announced severe new restrictions on asylum-seekers.
Andrea Flores has been the highest-profile departure from the White House immigration team in recent memory. The first Latina class president at Harvard, Flores worked for the Department of Homeland Security and the American Civil Liberties Union before joining the Biden White House in January 2021 as director of border management on the national security council, a team of presidential advisers that Rice led during Barack Obama’s presidency.
“Senior leadership was saying that we were letting in too many people,” said Flores to reporter Jonathan Blitzer last January. Flores now works for Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Beyond the occasional reports of Rice being a bad boss, the veteran policy hand has mostly managed to keep her name out of the press during Biden’s presidency.
That all changed last week when New York Times investigative reporter Hannah Dreier broke the news of Rice’s callous indifference to warnings that unaccompanied migrants were being put to work as child laborers. “Literally the worst human,” said Prerna Lal, a migrant rights attorney, of Rice’s work on the immigration portfolio in the West Wing.
In a memo obtained by the Times stating that Title 42 was causing family separations, Rice reportedly pushed back in the margins. “This is BS,” she wrote. “What is leading to ‘voluntary’ separation is our generosity to [unaccompanied minors]!” The Times reports that at least five officials at the Department of Health and Human Services “said they were pushed out after raising concerns about child safety.”
House Democrats are quick to point out (and confirm) on background that Rice chewed out HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat who once served in leadership in the lower chamber of Congress. At issue was the processing of migrants crossing the southern border with Mexico, according to reporting by The American Prospect reporter Daniel Boguslaw.
“We’re glad that Susan Rice is leaving as President Biden’s domestic policy adviser,” said Pablo Alvarado, co-director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “Ms. Rice’s tenure was marked by one bad White House decision after another on immigrants’ and human rights. She bears much responsibility for the huge disconnect between the administration’s lofty words about welcoming and respecting immigrants and its reprehensible anti-immigrant actions on the ground—particularly along the southern border.”
Prior to her work in the Biden administration, Rice’s time as the head of President Obama’s National Security Council was marked by two terms of similarly maladroit immigration enforcement policies that would provide Trump and Miller with a foundation on which to build out their own cruel immigration regime. Obama’s heavy-handed use of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents against migrants with no criminal record would be deployed nationwide by Miller who, despite his best efforts, failed to top Obama’s record number of deportations.
Migrant advocates are hopeful that Rice’s departure will lead the administration down a new and more humane path. “I hope that this means the Biden Administration will turn the corner positively on immigration policy,” said Amy Maldonado, an attorney in Michigan who represents several high-profile migrants, including professional athletes and C-suite executives at major corporations. Maldonado’s sentiment was echoed by Charles Kuck, an immigration attorney and law professor at Emory University. “I cannot think of happier news for those interested in fixing the immigration nightmare,” Kuck tweeted. “Getting rid of Susan Rice is step one!”