Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas parried question after question from Republican and even some Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday as the crisis of unaccompanied migrant children coming to the US-Mexico border seeking asylum continues to overwhelm his department.
The secretary described the situation at the border as “undoubtedly difficult,” but blamed the Trump administration for “four years of mismanagement and misuse of the department” that has led to inadequate preparation for such a surge in migration.
Mr Mayorkas acknowledged in his opening statement on Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee that DHS is dealing with “historic and unprecedented challenges” at the southern border, with families and individuals showing up in record numbers and being turned back towards Mexico.
“We are also encountering many unaccompanied children, children who arrive without a parent or legal guardian with them,” Mr Mayorkas said in his opening statement.
The Biden administration has adopted a policy of taking in those unaccompanied minors, saying it is the only “human” response to the influx of children in a dangerous foreign land without the company of a trusted adult.
“Their families made the heart-wrenching decision to send them on a journey across Mexico to provide them with a better, safer future,” Mr Mayorkas said.
“The situation is undoubtedly difficult.”
An overwhelmed system
It’s so difficult, in fact, that an overwhelmed US immigration system has not been able to follow its own laws.
By law, unaccompanied children who make it to the border are supposed to spend no more than 72 hours with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) before being transferred into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which runs a housing network for such minors. The goal is for the children to have safe places to stay as authorities track down legal sponsors and relatives in the US who can take them in.
But at one point earlier this week, more than 300 unaccompanied children had been in CBP custody for more than 10 days. More than 4,200 such children are in CBP custody right now, up nearly 1,000 from earlier this month. Most have been there far longer than the 72-hour legal window as HHS struggles to find shelter for the thousands of children already under its jurisdiction.
New York Congressman John Katko, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, criticised Mr Mayorkas for not giving “proper acknowledgement” to the severity of the border crisis, a term the Biden administration has steadfastly refused to apply to its challenges.
“I can tell you without hesitation that it is indeed a crisis that continues to deepen each and every day,” Mr Katko said.
Mr Mayorkas dismissed the GOP’s attacks on the characterisation of the border situation as cheap politics, saying he would not be “spending any time on the language that we use” to characterise the border situation.
“I will share with you how I define a crisis. 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,” Mr Mayorkas said, referring to a Trump-era policy that many have decried as a human rights abuse.
Adults and families
But what about individual adults and families who attempt to cross the border?
DHS has said previously that while the Biden administration has turned away and expelled individual adults over public health guidelines related to the ongoing Covid crisis, it has been forced to allow many asylum-seeking families into the country for processing since Mexico is also at capacity for families that have been turned back.
“We are expelling under the ... public health authority in light of the pandemic single individuals who arrive at the border. We are expelling families under that same public health authority, limited only by the capacity of Mexico to receive them,” he said.
Mr Mayorkas claimed on Wednesday that “the border is secure and the border is not open,” but recent numbers from the administration suggest that most families are not being returned to Mexico and instead being processed here in the US.
In a lengthy statement on Tuesday ahead of his hearing before Congress on Wednesday, Mr Mayorkas laid out what the Biden administration is doing with regard to families that Mexico cannot take back:
“Mexico’s limited capacity has strained our resources, including in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas. When Mexico’s capacity is reached, we process the families and place them in immigration proceedings here in the United States,” Mr Mayorkas’ statement from Tuesday said.
“We have partnered with community-based organisations to test the family members and quarantine them as needed under Covid-19 protocols. In some locations, the processing of individuals who are part of a family unit has strained our border resources.”
Chairman Bennie Thompson of the House Homeland Security panel on Wednesday blamed mismanagement by the Trump administration for leaving its successor without the tools to address the current crisis.
“Let me be clear, the Trump administration’s cruel, shortsighted policies directly contributed to the situation at the border now,” Mr Thompson said, citing the lack of testing capacity at CBP facilities and a general scarcity of resources for people seeking asylum from war-torn and poverty-stricken countries in Central America.
But congressional Republicans, many of whom took a fact-finding trip to the border last weekend, have pinned the blame for the border crisis directly onto Mr Biden’s policy shifts and promises to inject dignity into the US immigration system.
What Mr Biden and his aides have called “humane” policy, Republicans have termed naïve, reckless, and soft.
“It’s more than a crisis. This is a human heartbreak,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said at the border over the weekend. “This crisis is created by the presidential policies of this new administration. There’s no other way to claim it than a Biden border crisis.”
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