WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas faced hours of tough questioning from lawmakers Wednesday on how the Biden administration is handling the growing humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border.
Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee spent the hearing blaming the administration’s immigration policies for the significant increase in people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border over the last two months.
Democrats, meanwhile, said the situation is a product of the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration rules.
Responding to GOP criticism that the U.S. border is effectively open, Mayorkas clearly stated the “border is secure and the border is not open,” but acknowledged a “surge of individuals attempting to cross the border,” a situation that he called “undoubtedly difficult.”
“Most are single adults who are expelled within hours back to Mexico, pursuant to the CDC's public health authority," Mayorkas said in opening remarks, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Families who are apprehended at the border are also immediately expelled under the same public health authority unless we confront, at times, a limitation on Mexico's capacity to receive them.”
Mayorkas said the U.S. is “encountering many unaccompanied children, children who arrive without a parent or legal guardian with them. Their families made the heart-wrenching decision to send them on a journey across Mexico to provide them with a better, safer future.”
The Department of Homeland Security has ended the previous administration’s practice of sending unaccompanied children back to Mexico and has increased capacity to hold the children until the Department of Health and Human Services “can shelter them while it identifies and vets the children sponsors,” he said.
Mayorkas made clear that the crisis cannot be fixed overnight and said his employees are “working around the clock to manage it, and it will take time.”
The chairman of the committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., defended Mayorkas and the department, saying they have been “left to deal with the mess the last administration left behind." He added that some critics of the administration "are so desperate to make Americans forget Trump's failures.”
“Let me be clear, the Trump administration's cruel, shortsighted policies directly contributed to the situation at the border now,” Thompson said.
Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., the ranking member on the committee, said he thinks the humanitarian crisis could have been avoided, and implied that the Biden administration is encouraging people to enter the U.S. illegally.
"Through irresponsible rhetoric and actions by this administration, we are seeing an unprecedented crisis unfold during a pandemic," Katko said. "The situation at the border continues to get worse every day with inadequate action or even proper acknowledgment of the severity of the situation."
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, a former chairman of the panel, echoed the claim, saying the Biden administration is incentivizing people to cross the border by making them think “the United States is open for business again.” The Trump administration “did a masterful job” in its messages of deterrence to prevent people from entering the country, he said.
Mayorkas replied, “Sometimes, the tools of deterrence defy values and principles for which we all stand. And one of those tools of deterrence that the Trump administration employed was deplorable and absolutely unacceptable.”
“A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a 9-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future migration," he said. "That, to me, is a humanitarian crisis. And what the president has committed to, and what I am committed to and execute, is to ensure that we have an immigration system that works and that migration to our country is safe, orderly and humane.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, applauded the Biden administration’s efforts to reverse the previous administration’s policy.
“It is not a policy of putting children in cages, which we had to suffer for year after year on the Trump administration. There are no children in cages,” she said.
Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., asked Mayorkas if he agreed there's never a right time to enter the country illegally or to incite migrants to do so.
The secretary, whose mother was a Romanian Jew who fled the Holocaust to Cuba with her family, responded: "A claim of asylum — an individual fleeing persecution by reason of his or her membership in a particular social group — a claim of asylum is a claim that is recognized by law in the United States of America, and an individual who makes a claim of asylum is not breaking the law."
Mayorkas' testimony comes a day after he said the U.S. is on pace to reach the highest number of apprehensions at the border in 20 years. He blamed the Trump administration for some of the problems, stressing the need for “rebuilding an immigration system that was systematically dismantled during the prior administration.”
Range of threats
In his testimony, Mayorkas also touched on a range of national security issues the U.S. is facing, such as fighting the coronavirus pandemic, combating cyberattacks that target the federal government and companies, dealing with foreign and domestic terrorism, and extreme weather and other effects of the climate crisis.
The recent hacks exploiting Microsoft and the software company SolarWinds “highlight the significant cybersecurity challenges our nation faces," he wrote in his prepared remarks. "Beyond cyber espionage, cyber-attacks can paralyze companies and entire cities and are among the most serious security threats our country confronts.”
The cyberattacks on federal agencies and private sector groups “are a clarion call to urgently improve our national cybersecurity and resilience,” he said.
Terrorist threats, meanwhile, have evolved since Sept. 11, 2001, Mayorkas said. He emphasizes in his remarks that “the most significant terrorist threat facing our nation comes from lone offenders and small groups of individuals who commit acts of violence that are motivated by a broad range of extreme racial, political, religious, anti-government, societal, and personal ideological beliefs.”
Domestic violent extremism is fueled by conspiracy theories, false narratives and extremist rhetoric, he added.
“The lethality of this threat is evidenced by the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and other recent attacks across the United States, including against government buildings and personnel and minority groups,” he said.