Mayorkas Blames Trump for ‘Unprecedented’ Border Situation
(Bloomberg) -- Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told lawmakers Wednesday that the “unprecedented challenges” at the U.S.-Mexico border cannot be resolved overnight, “due in large part to the damage done over the last four years.”
In testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee, Mayorkas said the Trump administration left behind an inhumane and inadequate system that his department is working swiftly to revamp.
“President Biden has made one of his top priorities reversing the effects of the previous administration’s cruel immigration policies that separated parents from their children to deter others from seeking to enter this country,” Mayorkas said in his prepared remarks.
When pressed by Republicans, he refused to concede that the situation amounts to a crisis.
Border crossings are threatening to become a political liability for President Joe Biden as he seeks to allow more legal migration and asylum claims, reversing Donald Trump’s hard-line approach. Immigration advocates say the new administration isn’t doing enough to ensure the safety of detainees at the border, while Republicans attack the president for policies they say are encouraging a new wave of undocumented immigrants.
The biggest challenge faced by Biden’s administration is unaccompanied minors seeking entry to the U.S. They’re allowed to enter the country in the custody of Customs and Border Protection, even as most adults and families are sent away. More than 9,600 entered the U.S. in February, up 60% from January and triple the number who arrived in February 2020, according to data released last week.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and 39 other Republicans wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday accusing Biden of breaking federal budget law when he ordered a halt to construction of a southern border wall. The senators alleged that Biden’s move contributed to a surge in illegal border crossings.
A White House official said Wednesday that a physical wall isn’t the most appropriate policy to control the southern border. The official, who asked not to be named, said the Trump administration had redirected taxpayer money that Congress originally appropriated for other purposes.
Representative John Katko of New York, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, was part of a delegation of GOP lawmakers who visited an El Paso, Texas, detention center on Monday. During Wednesday’s hearing he called the situation at the border a humanitarian and security crisis.
“It is indeed a crisis that continues to deepen each and every day,” Katko said, blaming it on the “irresponsible actions and rhetoric” of the Biden administration.
When pressed by Katko, Mayorkas declined to specify whether the situation at the southern border constitutes “a crisis.”
“I’m not spending any time on the language that we use. I am spending the time on operational response to the situation at the border,” Mayorkas said. He also said it’s “not certain” that the administration will ask for supplemental resources to respond to the influx of migrants.
The committee’s chairman, Democrat Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, said the previous administration “squandered” billions of dollars on a border wall and “dismantled our immigration infrastructure.”
“The Trump Administration’s cruel, shortsighted policies directly contributed to the situation at the border now,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, some are so desperate to make Americans forget Trump’s failures, they have resorted to fear-mongering about the challenge we face at the border.”
Several lawmakers questioned Mayorkas about Covid-19 testing for people apprehended at the border and the vaccination rate for officers at the border. The secretary said the department has been reimbursing states and community organizations for tests and is “building capacity” to test migrants at U.S. Border Patrol stations.
“It is our policy to test individuals, it is our policy to see that those individuals who test positive are quarantined,” Mayorkas said, although he recognized that “there are times when we haven’t met our responsibility” to notify communities when a covid-positive migrant is released.
Mayorkas also said 26% of border agents have been vaccinated, up from 2% when he took over the department in February.
Several Democrats on the committee, including Eric Swalwell of California, suggested some House Republicans were “feigning” concern about migrants spreading the coronavirus.
Swalwell said some Republicans have “mocked the mask mandate we have here” in Congress, suggesting that “this is not genuine concern about the health of the people at the border.”
Biden administration officials have said the number of arrivals at the border has been growing since last April, well before it was clear that Biden would win the presidential election.
Biden ended Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, which required asylum seekers from Central America to wait for processing of their claims in encampments along Mexico’s northern border. The change allows asylum seekers to wait in the U.S. as their cases are adjudicated.
The president has said he supports creating a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people who’ve been living in the U.S. for years, and administration officials have conveyed a commitment to treating migrants more humanely than during Trump’s tenure.
Biden, in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday, urged migrants to not come to the U.S. “Don’t leave your town or city or community,” he said, adding that “there was a surge as well” in the last years of the Trump administration.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have indicated there isn’t enough support within their own caucuses, let alone with Republicans, for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Instead, House Democrats plan to vote this week on two narrow measures, one for agricultural workers and the other a version of the Dream Act, which would put millions of immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children on a path to citizenship.
Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee that would consider those bills, said he wants to see if there is support to move them through the Senate. But South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a top Republican on the panel, said Wednesday there should be no action on immigration legislation until the border situation is resolved.
“Until we control the border, that is impossible,” Graham said
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