Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stressed that the U.S. is both a country of laws and of immigrants in testimony before a House panel on Wednesday.
His testimony comes as the department grapples with a surge in migrants — particularly unaccompanied minors — to the U.S.-Mexico border. He faced repeated questions from Republicans framing the uptick in asylum-seekers as a “crisis” spurred by the Biden administration. Mayorkas argued the issue was bigger than a single administration.
“The situation is undoubtedly difficult. We are working around the clock to manage it, and it will take time,” Mayorkas said in his opening remarks to the committee.
“But we will not waver in our commitment to succeed. That is our job. We will also not waver in our values and our principles as a nation. In the Department of Homeland Security, we can and we will tackle the many challenges we face while complying with our legal obligations and honoring our nation’s values and principles.”
The United States is on track to see the highest number of migrants on the country’s southern border than at any time in the last 20 years, Mayorkas said in a statement Tuesday.
During his campaign, President Biden stressed the importance of taking a humane approach to immigration following the Trump administration’s harsh crackdown on illegal immigration.
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security began phasing in a new process for asylum-seekers, no longer requiring that they remain in Mexico, as had been law under Donald Trump’s administration. But Mayorkas still stressed to potential migrants not to travel to the border while the administration works to get the system up to date.
Republicans have pounced on the surge in migrants, claiming it as evidence of Biden’s weakness on immigration and arguing that his approach endangers American lives as well as those of asylum-seekers.
“The Trump administration, in my judgment, did a masterful job in negotiating the Remain in Mexico policy and the Asylum Cooperative Agreements with Central America,” Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas said during the Wednesday hearing, referencing strict Trump-era immigration policies that have since been suspended by the Biden administration.
“Cartels and traffickers see that the greenlight is on at our southern border and the United States is open for business again,” McCaul said. “This administration has created this crisis by rescinding these agreements.”
Responding to McCaul’s use of the word “crisis” to describe the border situation, Mayorkas stressed that in his view, there were more pressing moral imperatives to address in implementing immigration policy.
“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,” Mayorkas said.
“I will share with you how I define a crisis. A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a nine-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future migration. 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.”
McCaul said he, too, opposed the family separations, but he and other Republicans insisted the Biden administration is sending the wrong message abroad.
Noting the increases in migration during the previous two administrations, Mayorkas described the trend more as “episodic” than a direct consequence of President Biden’s policies. “It speaks so profoundly of the need to once and for all fix our broken immigration system,” he said.
Mayorkas also pushed back on implications that he was somehow encouraging illegal entry into the United States.
“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 by doing so,” he said during a tense exchange with Republican Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina. “As a law enforcement officer, I enforce the laws of accountability as well as the humanitarian laws that Congress passed.”
A DHS document obtained by NPR shows that as of Sunday, 4,276 unaccompanied migrant children were in U.S. government custody. Those minors, who arrived at the U.S. border without a parent or legal guardian, are spending an average of 117 hours in detention facilities, far longer than the 72 hours allowed by law.
The situation is complicated further by the coronavirus pandemic, requiring additional protocols when processing migrants.
Mayorkas responded to several questions about whether migrants at the border were being tested for the coronavirus during their detainment. The secretary said his agency was working to expand testing capabilities at Border Patrol sites, as well as teaming up with community-based organizations and local leaders to provide testing and space to quarantine.
“It’s more than a crisis. This is a human heartbreak,” Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said at a news conference on Monday after a tour of the El Paso Processing Center. “This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration.”
McCarthy said Border Patrol agents told him that sheltering facilities are quickly reaching capacity and that the number of migrants is “growing exponentially every day.”
Immigrant advocates praised DHS efforts outlined by Mayorkas Tuesday to increase the number of HHS facilities near the border that could take in young migrants — part of an effort to decrease the time spent at Border Patrol facilities.