Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Congress that he’s focused “galvanizing the talent and dedication of the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security” to meet the challenge of what, if trends continue, “could be the largest numbers we have seen in 20 years” encountered at the southern border.
“I don’t know that I had any particular expectation one way or the other,” he said when asked if a surge was expected with the change in administrations. “I just knew what we needed to do when we confront a situation. and in fact, we are doing it.”
In his first testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee since being confirmed to lead DHS, Mayorkas said most attempting to cross into the United States are “single adults who are expelled within hours back to Mexico, pursuant to the CDC’s public health authority,” and families are similarly sent back south “unless we confront, at times, a limitation on Mexico’s capacity to receive them.”
Unaccompanied children whose “families made the heart-wrenching decision to send them on a journey across Mexico to provide them with a better, safer future” can make claims for humanitarian relief in immigration proceedings as the law provides. “If it is determined that they do not have a valid claim, they will be returned in a safe manner,” he said.
In addition to managing the influx with the Department of Health and Human Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency, the administration has restarted the Central American Minors Program, which “was torn down by the prior administration,” Mayorkas said, to hear children’s asylum claims “so that they do not have to take the dangerous journey to our border.”
“The situation is undoubtedly difficult. We are working around the clock to manage it and it will take time, but we will not waver in our commitment to succeed. That is our job,” he told lawmakers. “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.”
Children who were separated from their parents under the Trump administration “are the subject of an intense effort and an all-of-government effort directed by President Biden to find the parents and reunite the families and restore our nation to its core principles and values,” the secretary said, an effort that involves “harnessing the talent and resources of the private sector and community-based organizations.”
Ranking Member John Katko (R-N.Y.) asked Mayorkas if he could confirm reports that the Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas, was recently more than 700 percent over its COVID-guidelines capacity.
“I don’t have the precise figure,” Mayorkas replied. “It was certainly over capacity. And we are addressing that.”
He also confirmed for lawmakers that DHS has “called upon the volunteer workforce to assist in managing the border as we have done before and we have done in many circumstances to address the varied mission of the Department of Homeland Security. I’m extraordinarily proud of our volunteers.” And FEMA was called in to help because the agency is “extraordinarily capable in addressing the many challenges that we throughout the Department of Homeland Security and throughout the nation confront.”
“Given the tremendous rise in surge of individuals coming to the border wouldn’t it be fair to call it a crisis because that’s what your agents are calling it?” Katko asked.
“I’m not spending any time on the language that we use,” Mayorkas responded. “I am spending time on operational response to the situation at the border.”
Mayorkas stressed that “the border is secure and the border is not open.”
“We are not expelling children who arrive unaccompanied without a parent or legal guardian and we are caring for their custody and their sheltering in HHS’s responsibility to place them with sponsors so that they can proceed with their immigration proceedings and their claims for humanitarian relief under the laws of this country in a safe and orderly way,” he said.
Mayorkas said that the last administration’s “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. That, to me, is a humanitarian crisis,” he said. “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.”
Mayorkas also told lawmakers that “we have seen migration surges before — 2019 was extraordinary, 2014, and before then.”
“And the bottom line is, and this is something about which we all agree, the immigration system is broken and it is in need of legislative reform,” he said. “And the president presented the bill, and there are bills pending before the House, and hopefully this year, and I am confident and optimistic that we will actually begin once and for all to fix a system that everyone agrees is broken.”
Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) asked Mayorkas to elaborate on how DHS is screening for COVID-19 at the border. “Are you testing all of the refugees and, for those refugees that are not turned away, for those refugees that may come into the United States for further evaluation of their case, if they test positive do you isolate them for the requisite time to make sure that our communities are safe?” he asked.
“We have four different ways in which we test individuals who come into the country whom we do not expel,” Mayorkas replied. “We work with community-based organizations and local officials. We release them into those community-based organizations so that they are tested and quarantined there and we provide 100 percent reimbursement through FEMA to the local entities and the community-based organizations, provided the state authority does not stand in the way. We work with states when those states have the capacity to test and quarantine.”
“We are working now with funds appropriated by Congress to fund directly community-based organizations and local facilities to conduct the testing and quarantines, and when those three options are not available, we have now retained a vendor to test individuals who are in CBP custody,” he continued. “And if, in fact, they test positive, we transport them to ICE facilities for quarantine before release. That is our four-point architecture.”
Mayorkas assured lawmakers that frontline agents are also getting better protection against the virus. “I share your tremendous pride in the men and women of the Border Patrol and of the men and women across the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. “When I took office on February 2, 2 percent of the frontline Border Patrol personnel had been vaccinated and what I heard first and foremost was the fact that their health and well-being had not been taken care of. We launched Operation VOW, Vaccinate our Workforce, and over 26 percent of the frontline personnel are now vaccinated.”