Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas found himself on defense Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee as Republicans grilled him on the record-high number of migrants who journeyed to the southwest border last fiscal year.
In the first hearing on oversight of the Department of Homeland Security under the Biden administration, Mayorkas defended the department’s policies and decisions to roll back some of the prior administration’s immigration restrictions, which Republicans blame for the higher migration levels.
Data released last month revealed last fiscal year was the busiest on record at the U.S.-Mexico border, with federal agents logging roughly 1.7 million encounters with migrants from October 2020 through September 2021.
Nearly 1 million of those migrants, including some repeat crossers, were turned back under a pandemic-era expulsion policy known as Title 42, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several Republican senators nonetheless charged the administration with having “open borders” policies and with releasing migrants into the U.S. who test positive for COVID-19 and commit crimes.
“I don't think that the approximately 965,000 people who were subject to Title 42 expulsions under the CDC’s authority would consider the border open,” Mayorkas shot back at Sen. Mike Lee, after the Utah Republican questioned the administration’s control over the southwest border.
“Operational control isn’t deemed in place because there are some people who have been stopped. Operational control has to be measured by those who are coming in — right now at a breakneck, record-breaking pace, unlawfully,” Lee replied.
Mayorkas also defended the administration against questions from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., on the steep increase in migrant encounters in 2020 — when migration slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic — and in 2021.
When Cotton asked if Mayorkas was “satisfied” with the increase, Mayorkas replied: “No, I’m not, but worse is to promulgate and operationalize a policy that defies our values as a nation.”
A number of Republicans also asked Mayorkas about the reported $450,000 settlement payments under consideration for migrant families separated at the border under the Trump administration.
Mayorkas declined to answer their queries, maintaining that those payments and litigation exist under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department, not DHS. He also insisted the payments are not a so-called pull factor drawing migrants to cross the border.
At the hearing’s end, Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said the family separation practice “strikes me, as a former plaintiff's attorney, as a pretty solid lawsuit.” He also called it a “ridiculous conclusion” for his colleagues to suggest that migrants would travel to the border in hopes of being separated from their children and obtaining civil compensation.
“To suggest that this is a pull factor, some civil settlement for taking your child away from you, perhaps never to be reunited — how many people will head to the United States border to take advantage of that bargain?”
The hearing, which was rescheduled after Mayorkas tested positive for COVID-19, was held the day after Customs and Border Protection released migration data from October, the first month of fiscal 2022. Last month was the busiest October in years with more than 164,000 migrant encounters.
However, the data also showed a downward trend in migrant encounters. The number of overall encounters decreased by 14 percent between September and October, and October was the third consecutive month where the number of encounters decreased.
Despite Republicans’ claims that the borders are open, the Biden administration has maintained the Trump administration’s expulsion policy and insisted it is critical to safeguarding public health.
On the policy, a former top CDC official told congressional investigators, in documents published earlier this month, that “the facts on the ground didn’t call for this from a public health reason.”
The administration is also preparing to restart the so-called Remain in Mexico program, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, following a court-ordered revival. The Trump-era program requires asylum-seekers who requested asylum to wait in Mexico for decisions in their cases.