Mayorkas defends border response, expects 20-year high

Ahead of House panel testimony, Homeland Security secretary concedes situation 'is difficult' but says 'we are making progress'

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at his Jan. 19 confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas at his Jan. 19 confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 16, 2021 at 11:29am

The U.S. is on track to see more migrants at the border than it has in two decades, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday, previewing plans to revamp refugee and asylum processes one day before he is set to testify before Congress.

In a lengthy statement, Mayorkas defended the Biden administration’s response to increasing levels of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. He called it a “difficult” situation but said the U.S. is “working around the clock” to manage it.

“We are making progress and we are executing on our plan. It will take time, and we will not waver in our commitment to succeed,” he said.

He also blamed some of the challenges at the border on the Trump administration, which he said “dismantled the asylum system” and failed to properly plan for the coronavirus pandemic.

[As more migrant children arrive, Biden faces political hurdles]

Border agents recorded more than 100,000 crossings in February, including more than 9,000 migrant children arriving without their parents, according to data published by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Some of those encounters represent migrants who attempted to cross the border more than once.

Mayorkas said the majority of them are single adults who are quickly “expelled” under a Trump-era public health directive. Families have also continued to be expelled under that order, except in cases when an individual has an “acute vulnerability” or when Mexico lacks sufficient capacity to accept them, he said. Migrant children have been exempted from the order.

Mayorkas indicated that the administration was not likely to rescind the public health expulsion directive any time soon, saying the U.S. is also working with the Mexican government “to increase its capacity to receive expelled families.”

The latest border figures mark a significant jump from last year but remain below levels seen in the spring of 2019. In May 2019, border officials encountered more than 144,000 migrants along the southwest border, including more than 11,000 unaccompanied children.

Still, as the coronavirus pandemic forces additional distancing measures, capacity in shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services — which takes custody of unaccompanied migrant children after they are picked up by border agents — has been strained, Mayorkas said.

“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years,” he said.

Hearing preview

Mayorkas’ remarks came the day before he is set to testify before the House Homeland Security Committee in his first congressional appearance since his confirmation.

The hearing will center “on the future of the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the Trump Administration’s four years of mismanagement and misuse of the Department,” according to the committee.

In his statement Tuesday, Mayorkas acknowledged that CBP facilities, short-term detention centers along the border intended for adults, have “become crowded with children,” and that the 72-hour legal limit on time children can spend in those jails before being transferred to child welfare authorities at HHS “is not always met.”

In response, he said, the U.S. has set up a CBP facility in Donna, Texas, to process families and children and additional HHS-run shelters in Arizona and Texas to house them afterward.

Mayorkas also said the administration is working to build a virtual platform and refugee processing centers in Central America that would allow migrant minors to seek protection without first having to journey to the U.S. border.

Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security will issue a new regulation “shortly” to improve the asylum system. The administration will work to speed up the asylum process “while ensuring procedural safeguards and enhancing access to counsel,” Mayorkas said.

The Biden administration has already announced plans to resume the Central American Minors Program, which would allow children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to apply from abroad to reunite with a parent in the U.S. Over the weekend, it directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to step in and support the processing of unaccompanied migrant children.

The increased migration at the southwest border has presented both operational and political challenges for President Joe Biden, who has pledged to adopt a more humane immigration system than the Trump administration but has not yet fully reopened asylum processes.

[GOP delegation slams Biden for ‘crisis’ during border visit]

Administration officials have repeatedly urged migrants not to come to the U.S. border yet while asylum processes are still limited. Officials have also resisted describing the situation as a “crisis.”

Congressional Republicans have insisted otherwise, blaming the higher levels of border crossings on Biden’s efforts to reverse the previous administration’s restrictions. On Monday, a delegation of House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, travelled to El Paso, Texas, and slammed the Biden administration’s response to border challenges in a news conference along the border.

During a Senate Armed Services hearing Tuesday, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton placed blame for the border situation squarely on the Biden administration.

“The reason we have a crisis at our border is because President Biden, his administration, opened the border and ended the policies of the Trump administration,” which discouraged migrants from trying to gain entry, he said. “If you let them in, more will come. That’s why we have a crisis at the border.”

Prompted by Cotton, Gen. Glen VanHerck, the head of the U.S. Northern Command, which includes the United States, Mexico and Canada, said he was aware of intelligence reports of people traveling from Asia and Africa to try to cross into the United States through Mexico.

“We must continue to monitor anybody who has nefarious desires for our country,” VanHerck said. “Border security is national security, which equals homeland defense.”

Sen. Tim Kaine pushed back against Cotton’s criticism, calling it “partisan finger-pointing.”

“The notion that this was bad under the Obama administration, fine under the Trump administration, and now bad again is just not realistic,” the Virginia Democrat said, while agreeing with Cotton that asylum rules should be tightened.

Previous bipartisan immigration efforts in the Senate that would have provided billions of dollars in border security funding stalled in the Republican-controlled House in 2013 and were blocked by Trump in 2018, Kaine said.

Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.