WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the Biden administration's handling of a new surge of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border amid humanitarian and security concerns, saying the American people will "look back on this and say that we secured the border and we upheld our values."
Mayorkas emphasized in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the administration's message to those seeking entry is that "the border is closed." But he said that while the administration will continue to expel families and single adults, it will not send back unaccompanied minors.
"We will not expel into the Mexican desert, for example, three orphan children," Mayorkas said, even as he warned against coming to the border.
"We are safely processing the children who do come to our border," he said. "We strongly urge, and the message is clear, not to do so now. I cannot overstate the perils of the journey that they take."
Mayorkas tied some of the problems to the policies of the Trump administration, which he said "dismantled the orderly, humane and efficient way of allowing children to make their claims under United States law in their own country."
"We are rebuilding those orderly systems both in Mexico, in close partnerships with the Mexican government, and in the countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador," he said.
Pointing to the overcrowding concerns made more acute by the pandemic, Mayorkas said the administration is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services to build temporary facilities to get unaccompanied minors out of Border Patrol stations. A Border Patrol station, he said, is "no place for a child."
Former President Donald Trump lashed out at Mayorkas and the Biden administration in a statement Sunday evening, saying "they are in way over their heads and taking on water fast" and describing the system he put in place as "smooth-running" and "the most secure border in history."
"Even someone of Mayorkas' limited abilities should understand that if you provide Catch-and-Release to the world's illegal aliens then the whole world will come," Trump said.
NBC News reported last week that the administration is limiting media access to information about the operations on the border, amounting to what some current and former Customs and Border Protection officials called an unofficial "gag order."
Mayorkas denied any gag order. He said that while the administration is focused on navigating the difficult situation, compounded by the pandemic, it is working on "providing access" for the public to see the conditions.
The administration is battling a sharp rise in the number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the border. As of Saturday, the Border Patrol had 5,049 unaccompanied children in custody, according to data obtained by NBC News.
The arrivals are stressing the system, prompting humanitarian criticism and complaints from Republicans, as well as some Democrats, that the Biden administration is not doing enough to stem the flow of migrants.
Biden, who was returning to the White House from the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, on Sunday evening, was asked whether he plans to go to the border.
"At some point I will, yes," he told the pool reporter.