WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is restricting the information Border Patrol agents and sector chiefs can share with the media as a surge of migrants tests the agency's capacity at the southern border, according to four current and two former Customs and Border Protection officials.
The officials say the restrictions are seen as an unofficial "gag order" and are often referred to that way among colleagues. The officials requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media about the topic.
Border Patrol officials have been told to deny all media requests for "ride-alongs" with agents along the southern land border; local press officers are instructed to send all information queries, even from local media, to the press office in Washington for approval; and those responsible for cultivating data about the number of migrants in custody have been reminded not to share the information with anyone to prevent leaks, the officials said.
Multiple news organizations, including NBC News, have requested access to or photos from inside overcrowded border processing facilities holding unaccompanied migrant children; they have been denied. The DHS press office released one photo late Tuesday of a mother and child undergoing a health screening inside a border facility, but no wider shots to show conditions or sleeping arrangements.
At the height of the Trump administration’s child separation policy in June 2018, it allowed media to tour facilities where separated children were held.
The new restrictions have been passed down verbally, not through an official memo, the officials said. The unofficial policy has led some agents at the border to release videos that show mass arrests and surges of migrants without permission from Washington, two officials said.
Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security have not offered any media tours of the newly opened processing facility in Donna, Texas, which is reported to be over capacity with unaccompanied migrant children, a DHS official said.
Some of the restrictions, particularly for in-person tours, are due to Covid-19 precautions, said one of the current officials. But, as the current official said, while the Trump administration allowed some border ride-alongs for journalists during the pandemic, there has been "not a single one since January 20," the day President Joe Biden was inaugurated.
A DHS spokesperson said the agency is following standards set in 2014.
"Across the federal government, certain employees are designated spokespeople for their respective agencies and public statements are vetted to ensure accuracy. This standard and process has been followed at DHS since the Department's inception and across bipartisan administrations. Customs and Border Protection continues to publicly provide the same monthly data on the same schedule as it has since 2014," the spokesperson said.
The Trump administration's media strategy for DHS often focused on highlighting the dangers posed by migrants, at times inflating the risk. Politically appointed public affairs officials under President Donald Trump pushed local border sectors to publicize arrests and to take national media organizations to the border to see agents in action.
"Part of maintaining the public trust is to communicate regularly and often," a former official said.
A second current official, who has served in the past three administrations, said the current climate for Customs and Border Protection personnel is more similar to what it was during the Obama administration.
"It was more restrictive under Obama than under Trump, when there was more autonomy for each region to speak to the media," the second current official said.
With the change in tone from the Biden administration, which has committed to a more humane system on the southern border, some border agents have released videos without permission.
One such video was posted online over the weekend by the office of Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. The video shows dozens of migrants, including young children, being shuttled across the Rio Grande by raft. A spokeswoman for Cuellar said that the video was shot in March but that "Congressman Cuellar is not able to say who gave him the video." Two officials, however, said the video came from a border agent.
Cuellar has previously criticized Biden for not visiting the border during the surge.
Another key piece of data is the number of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody. While the number has historically been somewhat protected, as it is law enforcement-sensitive, a congressional aide said the data have been harder to accumulate amid a leak crackdown.
Speaking to reporters at the White House on March 1, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas committed to being transparent with the media, citing "another principle to which I intend to adhere throughout my tenure, and that's openness and transparency, and that includes the Fourth Estate."
Mayorkas was responding to a reporter who said that she had been denied access to Border Patrol facilities and that the agency had cited Covid-19 restrictions. Mayorkas said he would look into it to find out why access was denied.
In a statement released Tuesday, Mayorkas said DHS is "on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years."
The Biden administration finds itself in a difficult position when it comes to messaging about immigration. On one hand, it wants to show voters it has a more humane approach, while on the other hand it doesn't want to encourage more undocumented migrants to cross the border.
Speaking at the White House last week, Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, Biden's coordinator for the southern border, told reporters: "It is difficult at times to convey both hope in the future and the danger that is now. And that is what we're trying to do. And I — I will certainly agree that we are trying to walk and chew gum at the same time."