Biden to Tap Seasoned Former Diplomat to Oversee Southern Border Policy

Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, will join the NSC and help oversee an anticipated U-turn in U.S. policy on migration and asylum.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson talk before a multilateral meeting during a Caribbean energy security summit at the State Department in Washington on Jan. 26, 2015. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to tap a seasoned career diplomat to oversee issues related to the southern U.S. border at the National Security Council, as part of his administration’s plan to chart a drastically different path on migration and asylum issues than President Donald Trump’s.

Roberta Jacobson, an American diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2016 to 2018, will be named as coordinator for the southwestern border on the National Security Council, Foreign Policy has learned. In this newly-established NSC position, Jacobson will play a key role in implementing the Biden administration’s proposed reforms to the national asylum system and managing national security challenges stemming from Mexico and Central America.

She will also help manage Washington’s relations with Mexico and other Central American countries that experts said have frayed during the past four years amid the Trump administration’s harsh crackdown on immigration and unsuccessful efforts to build a wall along the full length of the U.S-Mexico border.

Under Trump, “there have been a lot of ups and downs with the U.S.-Mexico relationship,” said Mari Carmen Aponte, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under President Barack Obama. “From my point of view, the downs have been a lot, and very dramatic and politically difficult. And the ups? I think both sides wish that there would have been many more than there were.”

Biden’s incoming administration plans to address the root causes of migration; expand legal pathways to immigrating, including through refugee resettlement and employment programs; and explore ways to reform the asylum process, according to a Biden transition spokesperson.

But changing processes—and repairing relations with the United States’ southern neighbors—will take time, experts said. 

“There’s going to be huge pressures to change everything the Trump administration did immediately, but reality dictates that there has to be an orderly process and staged process for doing that,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. 

Jacobson resigned from her diplomatic post in 2018 after more than 30 years at the State Department, and she later became a vocal critic of Trump’s policies on Mexico and immigration, condemning his “campaign rhetoric vilifying Mexicans.” 

During her three decades at the State Department, Jacobson served in multiple senior diplomatic posts, including as the top State Department envoy for Latin America—the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs—under Obama. After leaving government, she worked at the global consulting firm Albright Stonebridge Group and then joined Biden’s transition team as part of the agency review team for the State Department. 

In her new role, Jacobson will report to Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s incoming homeland security advisor. Earlier this month, Biden announced other senior NSC appointments including Juan Gonzalez, a veteran of the Obama administration State Department and White House, as his NSC senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Aponte praised the decision to bring Jacobson into the NSC, characterizing her as a dogged diplomat with deep knowledge of how Washington works and extensive contacts across Latin America. 

Selee said Jacobson—and the rest of the incoming administration—will be tasked with striking a difficult balance, reforming the asylum system without triggering any new surges in migrants attempting to cross the border. 

“There’s a real balancing act between starting to make changes, but not doing it so quickly that you incentivize large unauthorized flows [of new migrants] that undermine the space you have to work,” he said.

“Our aim is to restore order and a fair asylum process while prioritizing public health. Together with our partners, we will build a new immigration system that is fair, humane, and keeps families together,” the Biden transition spokesperson said. “We need time to build that system and there will not be immediate changes in processing at the U.S. border—putting our plans into action will take months, not days or weeks—it will not be like flipping a light switch. Migrants should not believe those peddling the idea that now is the time to come to the U.S.”

On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to enact a drastically different approach to the southern border than Trump’s, vowing, “there will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration,” he said.

Trump enforced policies of prosecuting migrant adults who arrived at the U.S. border and separating them from their children, and he made marginal progress in his 2016 campaign pledge to build a wall along the entire 800-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border. (In the past four years, the government built about 452 miles of border wall—but 400 miles of that replaced existing barriers in place, meaning the Trump administration only constructed around 50 miles of new border wall.)

Rod Rosenstein, a former deputy attorney general under Trump, expressed regret over the administration policies that led to family separations at the border. “Since leaving the department, I have often asked myself what we should have done differently, and no issue has dominated my thinking more than the zero-tolerance immigration policy,” he said in a statement on Jan. 14, according to the New York Times. “It was a failed policy that never should have been proposed or implemented. I wish we all had done better.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer