Homeland Chief Defends Handling of Border ‘Surge’ to GOP Critics

  • Mayorkas says plan is underway, urges action in Congress
  • Immigration enforcement policy to be released in August

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, under fire from Republicans about the Biden administration’s immigration policies, acknowledged a “surge” of migrants while defending his department’s management of it.

Mayorkas testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Tuesday to make the administration’s case for $52 billion in discretionary spending on cybersecurity, disaster response, and other priorities in DHS’s fiscal 2022 budget.

Republicans on the panel repeatedly turned to border security, grilling Mayorkas on rising numbers of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This record is an unmitigated disaster,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said, also citing a decreasing number of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported more than 188,000 encounters with migrants at the southern border in June, the highest in decades. Mayorkas said the number overstates the overall level because it includes migrants who’ve attempted to cross multiple times.

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Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images
Migrants caught crossing the Mexican border are loaded into a van by U.S. Border Patrol agents in Sunland Park, N.M. on July 22, 2021.

‘Plan Underway’

“We have a plan underway to address the surge of migrants at the border, a surge that began in April of last year,” Mayorkas said. “It is a periodic surge that we have encountered for many, many years in the absence of immigration reform.”

He promoted the administration’s request for $1.2 billion for port and border security, and he pressed lawmakers to update U.S. immigration laws—which Democrats are considering as part of a broad budget deal that could pass using reconciliation, a procedure that would bypass the need for Republican votes.

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Mayorkas also addressed DHS’s Monday night announcement that it was resuming fast-tracked deportation for some migrant families attempting to enter the U.S. The department can expedite processing “without compromising due process,” he said.

The White House on Tuesday outlined the administration’s efforts to make the immigration system more “humane.” Biden officials have unwound a series of Trump-era immigration policies, including a program that forced many asylum-seekers and migrants to wait in Mexico while their immigration enforcement cases were reviewed.

Some Democrats, including Chair Gary Peters (Mich.) and Sen. Maggie Hassan (N.H.), focused north, on restrictions on travel from Canada.

“We are looking at all the different ways that we can compartmentalize the issue and see whether we can allow certain flows or ease certain restrictions in a limited way without imperiling the public health and safety of the American people, as well as the people of Canada,” Mayorkas said.

ICE Arrests, Border Wall

Republicans expressed skepticism about the Biden administration’s immigration enforcement efforts.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) pressed the secretary on whether he agrees with House lawmakers’ proposal to reduce funding for some DHS immigration enforcement functions. Mayorkas said he favors increasing some enforcement spending “in certain respects” and cutting it in others to prioritize the “greatest public safety objective.”

“I know that from being in the trenches, from actually doing the work,” said Mayorkas, who is a former prosecutor and was deputy secretary of DHS during the Obama administration.

DHS plans to release full enforcement guidelines for ICE by mid-August, he said. The agency has been operating under temporary enforcement priorities since February.

An exchange with Hawley highlighted tension between the secretary and some of ICE’s employees. The Missouri senator said ICE agents have come to him with concerns about their ability to arrest and deport criminals. Mayorkas responded that he has “never once” received a question from the head of the ICE union.

Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the top Republican on the panel, said the administration’s budget request wouldn’t properly secure sections of the border between ports of entry. Republicans have accused the administration of wasting millions of dollars in suspension and termination costs for the border wall, a priority of President Donald Trump.

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“The final completion makes all the sense in the world,” Portman said, referring to border barriers in the El Paso, Texas, area. “We’ve already paid for it.”

Mayorkas called the Trump administration’s border wall plan “ill-advised” but told Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) he hasn’t “encountered” any consideration of DHS removing already-constructed parts of the wall.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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