Biden Allies See Urgency in Confirming Xavier Becerra As Immigration Woes Deepen

Democrats and Latino leaders watching the pace of confirmation hearings play out say the delay to confirm Xavier Becerra as secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) has effects beyond the ever-present pandemic, with the Biden administration's deepening immigration woes including the agency Becerra is tasked to lead.

The confirmation process for Becerra, a former congressman and the current attorney general of California, has crawled along, with the Senate finance committee splitting 14-14 along party lines Wednesday on whether to advance him out of committee. That means Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will now have to bring Becerra's nomination up for the full Senate vote, which Democrats hope could be as soon as next week.

When Biden's nominations were announced, Becerra stood out as a priority given the coronavirus outbreak that has now killed more than 520,000 Americans, but that was before the number of unaccompanied children and families arriving at the border swelled.

While the Department of Homeland Security is typically looked at on immigration matters, the Biden administration has made HHS-run shelters central to the response it hopes includes temporary detention before processing into the United States with relatives to await court dates. That decision led to criticism of President Joe Biden on the left and right, putting a spotlight on the work ahead for Becerra upon his confirmation.

Texas Representative Joaquin Castro said Republican obstruction to a "well-qualified nominee" for Heath Secretary in the middle of a pandemic "is partisan politics at its worst," before turning to the delicate situation at the border.

"There's no doubt that his leadership as Secretary, pushing from top of the department, can make a big difference in ensuring children who arrive alone at the border are swiftly united with their family or a sponsor in the United States," he told Newsweek.

While Democratic lawmakers say Becerra would be a good HHS secretary because he understands the role of career civil servants and how to make the levers of government move faster to deliver results, Republicans have not given up on drawing out the process and trying to ratchet up a political price for supporting his nomination.

The conservative Heritage Action on Wednesday announced a $500,000 ad campaign in Arizona and West Virginia aimed at Senators Mark Kelly, Kyrsten Sinema, and Joe Manchin, calling for a "no" vote on Becerra, and casting him as a "radical pick" with "zero medical experience."

While Becerra is expected to eventually be confirmed, Kelly's office declined a Newsweek request for comment on his nomination and the confirmation process.

Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz have criticized the Becerra pick because he's not a doctor, even though Donald Trump's pick for the agency also was not a doctor. Now is not the time for the HHS leader to need on-the-job training, Republicans said.

Biden transition spokesman Andrew Bates responded to Newsweek that "Xavier Becerra has decades of health care policy experience," worked on bipartisan approaches to "expand access to COVID treatments and take on opioid manufacturers, while leading the largest state department of justice in the country, and has a strong record of fighting to lower costs for patients."

Border encounters have been on the rise since April 2020, eight months before Biden's term, DHS told Bloomberg, citing violence and natural disasters in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as drivers of the increase.

But Biden quickly reversed many Trump immigration policies, and a more welcoming U.S. stance has also meant COVID protocols have hamstrung HHS, with the agency only able to use half of its beds for kids entering the country, to try to avoid the spread of the virus. The agency's Office of Refugee Resettlement handles the facilities, with Cindy Huang recently installed as the new director.

But Latino leaders who helped register and turn out Latino voters and pushed for Biden to have a cabinet that resembles the country, said Becerra's confirmation is a matter that isn't being given the urgency it warrants and made clear that they will expect improvements under his leadership given the controversial news that Trump-era facilities were being reopened for migrant kids.

"There's urgent need for reform at these detention centers for children and families," Domingo Garcia, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), told Newsweek. "Attorney General Becerra has the ability and experience to transform that agency after the neglect and abuse it suffered under the Trump administration."

Hector Sanchez Barba, the executive director of national grassroots organization Mi Familia Vota, said there is a wide contrast between the previous administration "that attacked our community" and the stewardship of someone like Becerra who "understands vulnerable communities."

"We must stay away from putting children in cages, those are some of the worst mistakes we have made as a nation," Sanchez Barba told Newsweek. "We have to urgently find ways that are humane and must stop a system of exploitation that violates civil rights, and instead create systems of inclusion."

Xavier becerra
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 24: Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, makes an opening statement during his Senate Finance Committee nomination hearing on February 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. Becerra is currently the Attorney General of California. Greg Nash-Pool