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The departure of Biden adviser Susan Rice has prompted relief among immigration advocates, who hope her exit signals a shift on the approach to the border.
Rice, the head of the Domestic Policy Council, announced Monday she would step down from the post, a broad portfolio and one where she frequently gave input on immigration matters.
That influence often caused frustration among lawmakers and immigration groups, many of whom saw Rice as a primary force behind some of the Biden administration’s more hard-line immigration policies, including the continued use of Trump-era deterrent policies at the border.
Nayna Gupta, associate director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said Rice’s departure will be a “critical moment of transition for the administration.”
“It offers the president an opportunity to reevaluate what they’re doing on immigration and to follow through on a lot of broken promises related to managing the border humanely,” she said. “And to rethink how you respond to a migration challenge with a humanitarian lens rather than a hardline, hawkish punitive response, which is what seemed to be supported by Susan Rice in the Domestic Policy Council until now.”
Rice was often reported to be behind various proposals to address migration with punitive measures at the U.S.-Mexico border, but the White House was careful to insulate her from public scrutiny on the matter.
The Hill has reached out to the White House for comment.
Former White House officials and congressional Democrats also tiptoed around Rice’s influence on the administration’s immigration policies, though in March, Sen. Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.) publicly vented his suspicions about Rice’s involvement in a reported proposal to reinstate family detention.
The reluctance among Democrats to pick a fight with Rice was in part influenced by what many view as unfair treatment over the last decade.
In 2012, Rice took herself out of the running for secretary of state to avoid a lengthy and potentially damaging confirmation process as Republicans sought an Obama administration official to blame for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, earlier that year.
Those recriminations, and a new set of GOP attacks related to the 2016 presidential campaign, were held by Republicans over Rice’s head.
Rice was reportedly in the running to become President Biden’s running mate in 2020 – that job ultimately went to Vice President Harris, though Rice’s participation in a Biden administration was all but certain.
As in 2012 when former President Obama appointed her as national security adviser after her withdrawal from the State Department nomination, Rice took a top job that required no Senate confirmation as Biden’s domestic policy adviser.
Still, Rice has often been a political lightning rod, and her departure from the administration coincided with the kickoff of Biden’s reelection campaign.
And a New York Times story on child labor recently identified Rice as the author of a note written atop a memo from immigration advocates that blamed TItle 42’s block on adults seeking asylum as a factor in so many unaccompanied children traveling to their border without their parents.
“This is BS,” Rice wrote about the memo’s conclusion. “What is leading to ‘voluntary’ separation is our generosity to UCs!”
Some advocates did not mince words about their enthusiasm about her exit.
“We’re glad that Susan Rice is leaving as President Biden’s domestic policy adviser,” Pablo Alvarado, co-executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said in a statement.
“While the president is of course responsible for his own policies, 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.”
“A new adviser will give Mr. Biden an opportunity to do better. A chance to fix his broken promises. We expect him to take it,” he added.
Rice took on her wide-ranging role at the Domestic Policy Counsel after a career largely centered in foreign affairs, culminating in her appointment as ambassador to the United Nations.
Her departure does leave a significant knowledge and experience gap in the Biden administration.
Despite the GOP political attacks and the friendly fire over her more hawkish stances, she is one of the more experienced policy thinkers available to a Democratic administration.
While her impressive resume lacked much in the way of specific immigration policy experience, many of the early immigration executive orders from Biden laid considerable responsibility with the Domestic Policy Council.
Angela Kelley, chief adviser for policy and partnerships at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, worked with Rice over the course of the first year of the administration when she was serving as senior counselor on immigration at the Department of Homeland Security.
She said Rice’s role in guiding immigration policy was more nuanced than is often believed.
“She came in without really any background in the issue. She had to jump in two feet first because of the saliency of immigration for the administration,” she said.
“This issue – you live in the gray, and it’s very uncomfortable all of the time. And I think that that was frustrating to her, to have to live in the gray.”
Still, Rice, for more than a decade has highlighted the importance of immigration as a top domestic issue.
In an NBC News interview discussing why she dropped out of State Department consideration in 2012, Rice listed the administration’s priorities she didn’t want disrupted by a contentious confirmation process.
“We’re talking about: comprehensive immigration reform, balanced deficit reduction, job creation — that’s what matters,” said Rice.
Biden has yet to name Rice’s successor, and whether her departure will lead to the moment of change some advocates seek remains to be seen.
Some advocates have complained that the White House has been too involved in immigration policy, at times sidelining the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“What I hope is that to the extent that there are politicals in DHS who are promoting more progressive and effective and humane responses, that there will be room for those to actually be embraced by the administration, as opposed to the past two years, where it seemed to us that the White House made final calls – even when those were not aligned with what their own agency enforcing immigration laws was recommending,” Gupta said.
But Kelley said others in the White House may now exert greater influence.
“Going forward, it may be that the center of gravity around these issues could shift to other parts of the White House,” she said, calling immigration a high-profile issue for the Biden administration with “a lot of cooks who are always in the kitchen.”
“I think a fair-minded person who has background in the issue would be welcomed,” she said, of a possible replacement.
Rice will leave the administration shortly after the end of Title 42 on May 11, but Gupta said she doesn’t expect any immediate shift.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned in the immigration, space, it’s that it can always be far too soon to celebrate. It may be potential for change, but we don’t know what that looks like,” she said.
“We have learned the hard way, our communities have learned the hard way, that even in these moments of transition sometimes we don’t reap the positive policy decisions that we think are overdue.”