Complexities at the border have left the Biden administration torn between the desires of the left and the cries of the right, and Blas Nuñez-Neto has helped the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) develop policies that have fueled criticism from both.
In an administration that has been pushed toward the middle on immigration, Nuñez-Neto, 49, the assistant secretary for border and immigration policy, has been central to helping the Biden White House navigate a topic he sees as so often dominated by the extremes.
“I feel like these days in the world of immigration, that’s actually not a bad place to be, when both sides are kind of upset, because it means that you’re actually doing something that is middle of the road,” he told The Hill in an interview in his office at the DHS campus.
“This is one of those issues where the ends of the political spectrum tend to dominate the debate. But I think most Americans are actually somewhere in the middle.”
Nuñez-Neto has become one of the administration’s chief border architects, as well as one of its main faces in communicating those policies to a sometimes combative Congress and the public.
It’s an adjustment for the mild-mannered policy wonk, who worked his way up from serving as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service, drawn to a portfolio he saw as one of the few areas for bipartisan cooperation at the time.
He went on to spend years as a staffer on the Senate Homeland Security Committee before serving as a top aide at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
He’s now stayed on past the churn common partway through an administration, leading the response to an issue the GOP routinely casts as a crisis and that President Biden’s team sees as a humanitarian problem stemming from instability throughout Latin America.
It’s a difficult role — one with few easy-to-please constituencies.
“He’s in a tough job,” said Angela Kelley, who previously served as a senior counselor on immigration issues to the secretary of Homeland Security. “There’s also just a real appreciation that what looks like calm at the border could change quickly.”
“This administration is really creative and stretching and coming up with solutions. And because the policies are new and changing, it’s hard on the people who have to execute them, and they’re basically flying without a net. I think that they’re doing a remarkable job under the circumstances,” she added.
“Because he’s hung in there, he’s earned a lot of respect.”
For Nuñez-Neto, his approach is influenced by his background as an immigrant himself, describing immigration both as essential and a process that’s become less orderly as Congress has failed to update laws to address shifting migration patterns.
He came to the U.S. from Argentina at age 9 with his mother, who worked at the Argentine Embassy in Washington — a move that left him as one of the only Hispanic children in his downtown D.C. school.
“That was kind of hard — the adjustment to the states was hard. … As a kid, it was tough, because after a while I felt like I didn’t belong in the U.S. and I didn’t belong in Argentina. I was kind of a mix. As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate that’s actually a strength, right? Because you have windows into different cultures and different societies that other people don’t. And I think that can be pretty powerful,” he said.
“I’ve benefited myself from America’s willingness to take in immigrants, and we’re one of the few countries in the world where someone like me, an immigrant, can end up working in these kinds of positions in the government.”
From that position, Nuñez-Neto has helped craft policies he sees as a middle ground, ones that the White House likes to say combine carrots and sticks.
That approach is perhaps best exemplified in the administration’s response to the May lifting of Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allowed the swift expulsion of migrants without letting them seek asylum, a contravention of asylum law ultimately used more times by Biden than by his predecessor.
In preparation, the Biden administration finalized restrictions on asylum seekers that many on the left compared to slightly modified Trump-era policies, while rolling out an expansion of parole options and appointments at ports of entry that have infuriated the right.
The administration lets 30,000 people per month from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti enter the country on a temporary basis if they can secure a sponsor. Another roughly 43,000 can seek to come to the U.S. by making an appointment at a port of entry through the CBP One app, where they can first make any claim of asylum.
Nuñez-Neto pointed to the journey some migrants make from South America, crossing through the Darién Gap in Panama, where the break in the Pan-American highway leaves them traveling the jungle path on foot.
“The bottom line is: When you look at what people go through to come here — these people that we’re encountering on the border now that have crossed the Darién jungle — if you go down and look at the Darién, you can’t believe the number of people that are transiting that area every day, because it is so remote,” he said.
“It’s families with small kids. So if you’re willing to do that, there’s very little we can do at the border that’s going to stop people from coming if we don’t also give them the hope that there’s a legal way to come here.”
They’ve also sought to address the recidivism boosted by the lack of consequences associated with crossing the border under Title 42, reverting to removing people under Title 8, which creates a record of the crossing and could lead to a years-long bar on reentering the U.S.
The early data suggests the approach is cutting the number who seek to cross the border between ports of entry; those numbers fell from roughly 170,000 in May down to just under 100,000 in June.
But July statistics obtained by news outlets ahead of their official release saw a spike, jumping to more than 130,000.
“We’ve seen the decrease that we were hoping for post-Title 42, once those consequences were understood and in place. But this is all very fragile, and we all are very clear-eyed, and no one’s declaring victory here,” Nuñez-Neto said ahead of the reports on the July figures.
“We fully believe we could see another increase in migration.”
Many aspects of the Biden administration’s post-Title 42 plans are in jeopardy, with Nuñez-Neto nodding to being “sued from both directions constantly.”
The American Civil Liberties Union scored an early victory in court challenging the asylum plan, with a federal judge determining both the limitations on seeking asylum in between ports of entry and another component requiring migrants first seek asylum in another country along their journey to the U.S. directly contradict the asylum laws laid out by Congress.
The policy is still in use as the court case plays out. The parole program it’s paired with, however, is also being challenged by a host of GOP-led states.
Nuñez-Neto acknowledged the longevity of many of the Biden administration’s actions — something he believes could “reflect what a compromise could look like” — have little chance at permanency without action from Congress.
Bipartisan immigration reform is, of course, not a priority in Congress. A GOP-led House bill cast as the party’s border solution was called dead on arrival by the Senate, and Biden pledged to veto it, saying it would “trample on the nation’s core values and international obligations.”
At least in the House, much of the GOP has been focused on a possible impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
“Obviously there’s this impeachment effort in the House for the secretary, which I think is appalling. You can have a policy disagreement, but impeaching someone for a policy disagreement seems like a terrible precedent to be setting in the Congress,” Nuñez-Neto said.
“But you know, one of the arguments for the secretary is that we’re not enforcing the law, but I think people are being very selective about what laws they want the secretary to enforce. Because the Immigration and Nationality Act is actually crystal clear about what is supposed to happen with individuals who set foot on U.S. soil and claim asylum. And so we are, in fact, enforcing the laws that Congress enacted.”
He’s also had to deal with other misconceptions about the DHS’s power.
“We hear a lot like, ‘You could just shut the border down, if you wanted to.’ And that’s not true,” he said. “We have laws that allow people to claim asylum at the border when they’re encountered.”
Some GOP members of Congress have likewise referred to migration as an “invasion,” a label that has been strongly rejected by Democrats.
“My approach to this has always been to steer clear of that rhetoric,” Nuñez-Neto said.
“And I will say, I think that we have — not the same kind of rhetoric, but still equally unhelpful rhetoric sometimes from some advocacy groups — not all of them,” he said, pointing to groups that are “uncomfortable with removals” even when required by law.
“Even though I view some of the language on the right to be incendiary and verging on hateful at times, again, I think neither of the extremes of the political spectrum are helpful in this debate.”
Nuñez-Neto said to address the crux of GOP complaints, they would need to revamp asylum laws that have now become the main vehicle through which many migrants seek to remain in the U.S., their case entering an overwhelmed system with a years-long backlog.
“We often talk about people at the border as asylum seekers. But the facts are that the majority of people we encounter are not eligible for asylum,” he said.
U.S. asylum law offers protections for those fleeing persecution for their political and religious beliefs, along with those who are a part of other protected classes, but it is not offered to those fleeing “generalized violence.”
“Our asylum system was predicated on having very few people claiming asylum. And so we were very generous, and we wanted to err on the side of letting those people have their day in court,” he added. “So it’s putting an incredible amount of stress on the whole system.”
Nuñez-Neto said without action from Congress, the agency is doing the best it can to craft policies within their authorities — policies he hopes a more moderate public can view as a viable plan to address the border.
“The border is like a Rorschach test, right? You can look at the exact same thing and just arrive at diametrically different conclusions based on your preconceived notions about what’s happening at the border,” he said. “I’m hoping to get through to some of the people that have not already made up their minds about what’s happening.”
Updated at 9:29 a.m. ET