While the moves have gotten little attention during the Covid-19 outbreak, “it’s only a matter of time before the situation blows up again like it did in 2018,” said one current official familiar with the matter. “It’s a team of people with very little management experience and an agenda that isn’t going to end well given the current laws.”
“The White House wants ORR [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] to be an immigration enforcement office,” said a second official. “That’s not its role.”
The moves also come amid other immigration crackdowns during the Covid-19 outbreak, such as the Border Patrol being ordered to immediately turn away migrants.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment. HHS said there are no policy changes to announce at the refugee office.
“As political appointees, we are honored to serve at the pleasure of the president, and when we are asked to serve, we step up and we serve,” said Heidi Stirrup, the former deputy White House liaison for HHS who became the office’s acting director a month ago.
The HHS refugee office was at the center of the 2018 family separation crisis, sparking multiple lawsuits that continue today, as well as congressional investigations and watchdog probes. A federal judge ordered the Trump administration to reunite thousands of separated migrant families, and Trump reportedly reversed the policy only after first lady Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump, his daughter, prevailed on him to change it.
By late 2018, HHS Secretary Alex Azar reassigned the officials who oversaw the troubled office and brought in new leaders for his department’s children and families division, including several officials with a background in human services and management expertise. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the House subcommittee that controls funding for the health department, also probed the office last year and sought to set guardrails in appropriations bills.
But the refugee office’s leadership was shuffled again last month, when Jonathan Hayes — who had overseen the office for the previous 15 months — was reassigned to the health department’s emergency-preparedness division with just two days notice.
Health department leadership had been pleased with the work of Hayes, a longtime GOP congressional staffer who had overseen a turnaround in the office’s operations after the divisive events of the family separation crisis. For instance, fewer than 3,000 refugee children were in the office’s custody last month, down from nearly 15,000 in December 2018, as the refugee office more quickly found sponsors for the children and was able to release them from custody. An HHS memo publicly characterized Hayes’ abrupt reassignment as an elevation, saying he had been “promoted” to a new role on the department’s emergency-preparedness team.
But Hayes — despite having called to strengthen the U.S. border and overhaul the immigration system in his congressional testimony — was viewed as too soft on refugees by some White House officials who had pushed for family separation. For instance, Hayes had told colleagues of the importance of keeping migrant families together, said two officials with close knowledge of the office’s workings.
Hayes also discontinued the policy of fingerprinting all adults in the households where refugee children were released, barring any red flags. The tactic had been instituted by his predecessor, Scott Lloyd, at the behest of the White House. Hayes and other health officials argued that the policy slowed processing of the children and was ineffective as an immigration enforcement tool. About 50,000 adults were fingerprinted by the office across 2018, but ICE took action on fewer than 200, said two officials.
Hayes did not respond to a request for comment.
Hayes was reassigned at the direction of the White House’s personnel office, among the first in a broader swath of staffing changes across the federal government in a purge of officials deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump’s agenda, said three individuals with knowledge of personnel planning.