President Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security told senators he would act in accordance with plans to halt border wall construction and review what to do with the portions already built.
Alejandro Mayorkas, who served as deputy secretary at DHS from December 2013 to October 2016 and before that served as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2009 to 2013, also said at his Tuesday confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he won’t support calls to defund ICE.
President Biden announced his intention to nominate Mayorkas as the first Latino and the first immigrant secretary of Homeland Security in mid-November. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) blocked quick congressional consideration of Mayorkas’ nomination, saying in a statement after the hearing that Mayorkas “has not adequately explained how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border given President-elect Biden’s promise to roll back major enforcement and security measures.”
Though Mayorkas is likely to be confirmed by the Senate after the delay, Transportation Security Administration Administrator David Pekoske took over acting secretary duties from FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor with the beginning of the Biden administration.
Mayorkas told lawmakers that the Biden administration has “put forth a bold vision for addressing the root causes of irregular migration from the Northern Triangle countries.”
“One cannot overstate the push factor, why individuals seek to leave their country of origin, their homes, because of extraordinary violence, because of corruption, because of extreme property, because of persecution,” he said. “We must address the root causes to solve the problem in the Western Hemisphere, in our region specifically.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) asked, “Would you recommend any the physical barriers along our southern border be dismantled or removed?”
“Senator, I haven’t looked at that specific question. I will share with you the fact that I agree with the approach that then Senator McCain, an American hero in my family and in this country, that Senator McCain took to the border, which is it’s not a monolithic challenge, the border,” Mayorkas replied. “The border is varied, depending on the geography, depending on the specific venue, and depending on the conduct of individuals around it. And we don’t need nor should we have a monolithic answer to that varied and diverse challenge.”
Asked if more or enhanced physical barriers are needed in any places, the nominee replied that he’s “well aware of the challenges that the border presents… that traffickers are seeking to exploit the border, and not only to move people across it illegally but to move contraband, to move fentanyl the narcotraffickers have sought to exploit, the current challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“And I look forward to studying the border to make sure that those challenges are repelled,” he added.
Asked what he would do about migrant caravans from Central America, Mayorkas noted that “the phenomenon of a caravan is something that we have confronted in the Department of Homeland Security for many years.”
“There is a commitment to follow our asylum laws, to enforce our asylum laws. And that means to provide humanitarian relief for those individuals who qualify for it under the law,” he said. “That cannot be accomplished with just the flick of a switch and turned on in day one, that it will take time to build the infrastructure and capacity so that we can enforce our laws as Congress intended. And that would be the message I would send.”
Mayorkas told senators that when he served as deputy secretary and visited with Border Patrol at headquarters and in the field he was told “we need a diverse approach to border security.”
“That in some instances a physical barrier would be effective but that in other instances more boots on the ground would assist, and in yet in other circumstances the use of technology, the use of Air and Marine assets would be most effective,” he said. “And I look forward to studying the challenges at the border and developing a sophisticated approach to meet those challenges to be sure that we are harnessing innovation and technology to the best of our abilities.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) asked, “So with regard to the wall itself, would you tear down parts of the wall? Would you stop the construction that’s going on? How would you deal with the existing plans with regard to the wall?”
“Senator Scott, President-elect Biden has committed to stop construction of the border wall. It would be my responsibility to execute that on that commitment and I have not looked at the question of what we do with respect to the wall that has already been built,” Mayorkas responded. “And I look forward to studying that question, understanding the costs and benefits of doing so. Being open and transparent with you and with all members of this committee, sharing my thoughts and considerations and working cooperatively with you towards a solution.”
Hawley asked what would become of the $1.4 billion in additional funding Congress recently appropriated for the border wall system.
“I will follow the law and what I would need to do is to understand what the law provides with respect to the obligation of funds to construct the border wall and see what the opportunities are to discontinue any such obligation if in fact the law permits and act accordingly,” Mayorkas said.
Asked during the hearing whether he supported calls to defund U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Mayorkas replied, “No.”
“I will have to study the condition of Immigration Customs Enforcement, how efficiently and effectively it is using its resources, and how it is best serving the American public,” he said when pressed on whether the component needs more funding. “That requires my study.”
Mayorkas added at a different point in the hearing that CBP and ICE play “critical roles in the federal government and I would not abolish them.”