In the strongest indication yet that the Biden administration hopes to stop detaining migrant families, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NBC News Thursday that a detention center is "not where a family belongs.”
Currently, migrant parents who cross the border illegally with their children are placed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, under a court-ordered maximum of 20 days, a process started under the Trump administration. However, some have waited months, even over a year, as they fought orders of deportation. NBC News has previously reported that the Biden administration was planning to cut the number of families in ICE detention drastically, and has already released many families who under Trump had declined release until they could be reunited with their children.
In an exclusive interview with NBC News Thursday, Mayorkas was asked whether he agreed with a tweet President Biden made during his campaign, which said: “Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately” and whether he could commit to ending family detention.
Mayorkas did not address the questions directly, instead giving a one-sentence answer: "A detention center is not where a family belongs."
Mayorkas also told NBC News that even some of those immigrants expelled from the U.S. under authority invoked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should have the right to stay in the U.S. while seeking asylum.
The Trump administration used that authority, known as Title 42. to rapidly deport all asylum seekers, even unaccompanied children, without giving them the right to due process in the U.S.
Mayorkas said that the Trump administration had "operated from a point of cruelty" and had “dismantled” the asylum system in its entirety. He said he would need to see it rebuilt before all asylum seekers could be processed in a way that does not impact public health.
“I believe asylum seekers, individuals who claim credible fear by reason of their membership in a particular social group, should have the opportunity to present those claims to U.S. authorities,” Mayorkas said. “And they should be able to present those claims in an orderly effecient and safe way and in a way that does not actually imperil their public health nor the health of the American communities they seek to enter.”
The Biden administration stopped sending children back across the border, but still uses Title 42 to expel many families and single adults.
“We are executing the directive of the CDC,” Mayorkas said. “It has made a determination that Title 42 authority should be employed to address the public health needs of not only the American public but of the migrants themselves.”
Mayorkas also said his agency is planning to build additional facilities to accommodate the surge in unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border. Recently, Customs and Border Protection opened a tent facility to accommodate the rising numbers of children in their custody.
NBC News reported that more than 625 children have been held in Border Patrol custody over the 72 hour legal limit and the administration projects 117,000 unaccompanied children could cross the border this year, far surpassing previous records.
“We are looking at a number of different types of shelters that are required in the best interest of the children and to address the public health imperative of the American people,” Mayorkas said. “We understand the sigificance of the number of children. It speaks to the fact that there is quite frankly pent-up desperation from three countries that have suffered so much violence, so much poverty and other adverse conditions.”
Mayorkas recently appointed the executive director of the task force that will seek to reunify migrant families separated by the Trump administration.
Asked if there would be a “holistic investigation into potential criminality of the Trump administration” for their role in family separation, Mayorkas said, “I haven’t excluded anything, but what I am focused on right now is reuniting the families.”
Late Tuesday, DHS and the FBI sent out a joint intelligence bulletin warning some domestic violent extremists had discussed plans to take control of the U.S. Capitol on March 4.
Asked whether DHS would change any of its operations to thwart the threat of domestic terrorism, Mayorkas said, “We’re going to change our posture as the intelligence and information dictate. That’s what we do.”