Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., is one of the lawmakers who had questions about the border deployments.

Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., is one of the lawmakers who had questions about the border deployments. Alex Edelman/Pool via AP

Lawmakers Say Biden's Deployments of Feds to the Border Risk Agency Missions

Republican House members ask for data on governmentwide details set up to address uptick in migrant children.

A group of House Republicans is pressing the Biden administration for more information on federal employees it has sent to the border to assist in the processing and care of migrant children, raising concerns that the deployments are hurting agencies’ ability to meet their core missions. 

President Biden issued a solicitation for federal worker deployments in March following an increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border, which severely strained government resources. The Office of Personnel Management instructed agencies to proactively encourage supervisors to allow their employees to volunteer for the detail, each of which lasts for four months. Agencies are receiving full reimbursement for all costs associated with detailing their workers from the Health and Human Services Department, which oversees the unaccompanied children program. Employees receive travel, lodging and per diems through HHS. 

Reps. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, James Comer, R-Ky., Mike Kelly, R-Pa., and Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., the top Republicans on the House committees on Ways and Means, Oversight and Reform, and two of their subcommittees, respectively, said in a letter on Friday to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra the deployments are having unintended consequences.

“We are concerned about the total cost of this effort and the potential impact on core government functions in the agencies losing employees and are concerned about how long these federal employees may be away from their primary duties,” they wrote. 

In addition to details on the spending the Biden administration has redirected toward the border, the lawmakers specifically asked for data on the number of federal employees deployed, which agencies they came from and the associated costs. 

The administration has yet to produce any comprehensive data on the deployments, and HHS was unable to provide the information in response to an inquiry on Friday. The Social Security Administration previously told Government Executive it had approved sending 173 employees to the border, consenting to 87% of the first wave of requests. It said it was already vetting another 170 for deployment. The Spectator reported in April the Agriculture Department had approved 500 employees to send to assist HHS. Homeland Security Department Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in March his agency had recruited 560 volunteers from its workforce to send to the border. 

Agencies and individual managers can reject employees’ requests for deployments based on their existing workloads. The Trump administration also sought volunteers throughout government to address a surge in migrants in 2019, though those workers assisted with DHS and the Border Patrol rather than HHS.

The Biden administration has touted its success in dramatically slashing the number of children who have remained in DHS, rather than HHS and legal sponsor custody, for extended periods of time. DHS has cut the number of unaccompanied children who arrived at the border and remained in Border Patrol custody from nearly 6,000 at its peak earlier this year to less than 500 in May. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., previously raised concerns about the deployment of federal employees, suggesting the strategy of “secretly recruiting” federal volunteers highlighted the administration still did not have the situation under control. 

“Your administration has been touting its recent ability to transfer migrants from CBP custody to HHS custody as a success,” Lankford said in a letter of his own last month, “but your need to recruit this volunteer force demonstrates again that the federal government lacks the capacity to deal with this crisis.” He added employees sent to the border, such as NASA scientists, imperiled the mission at their primary agency.  

Biden has also tapped the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stand up additional housing units for the arriving children. Mayorkas last month floated creating a permanent federal workforce dedicated to processing and caring for the children, rather than the current system of relying on contractors—and deployed feds—to staff up with the ebbs and flows of migration patterns.