Alejandro Mayorkas, DHS chief, insists Mexican border is secure
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas vowed to Congress on Wednesday that the U.S. will maintain control of the Mexican border amid the looming surge of migrants, insisting the Biden administration has a plan for dealing with the expected more than half-million illegal immigrants a month.
Republicans were incredulous at the assurance, saying Mr. Mayorkas’s own agents and officers say they’re already stretched beyond breaking, and the looming end of President Trump’s COVID-related border shutdown policy next month will make it worse.
“Do you believe front-line agents and officers?” Rep. John Katko, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, challenged Mr. Mayorkas. “There’s not a single person on the border today that will tell you once Title 42 is lifted they won’t lose operational control.” Title 42 is the statute allowing tighter controls at the border based on the public health need to control the pandemic.
Mr. Mayorkas said the border is secure right now, and promised lawmakers: “We will not lose operational control of the border.”
Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican, said that didn’t match what he’s experienced.
“I have never seen the border more broken. It is not under operational control. It is out of control,” he said.
The exchanges came as Mr. Mayorkas faces two days of grilling on Capitol Hill, where Republicans and even some Democrats said they were disappointed with what they’ve seen from the Biden administration over the last 15 months at the border, and with what they say is a lack of planning for even worse days ahead.
Homeland Security officials are preparing for as many as 18,000 illegal immigrants a day to surge across the southern border when Title 42 is lifted.
Mr. Mayorkas called that estimate a worst-case plan rather than a prediction, though he does acknowledge more people will come, topping the already record levels.
The secretary released a 20-page plan Tuesday he said will defend against the surge. It relocates some personnel, tries to streamline processing for border jumpers, and appeals to Mexico and other Central American countries to block migrants making the journey.
But Republicans wondered why the plan was only being announced now, even though the border has been in chaos for more than a year. Mr. Mayorkas much of the plan had already “been underway.” Republicans then said it didn’t seem like much of a plan, given the results.
The department tallied more than 220,000 encounters with border jumpers in March, and has been above 150,000 every month since February 2020. That’s the longest sustained level of illegal apprehensions on record.
“Are you testifying as you sit here today that the southwest border is secure?” asked Rep. Michael Guest, Mississippi Republican.
“Yes I am,” Mr. Mayorkas answered, refusing Republican demands to apologize and arguing he’s doing better job than the Trump administration.
Rep. Dan Bishop, North Carolina Republican, asked him about the record number of migrants who died at the border last year. Mr. Mayorkas citing immigrant rights groups, countered that 1,500 migrants were abused, kidnapped or murdered under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.
Asked to say something to Americans who might be victimized by illegal immigrants caught and released into the county, Mr. Mayorkas said under his watch the Homeland Security Department has ousted more aggravated felons than before.
“We are more focused on public safety threats, true public safety threats to the homeland, than the prior administration was,” he said.
Democrats said blame for border problems lies not with Mr. Mayorkas but with Congress, which they said needs to pass a broad bill dealing with the border and legalizing the current illegal immigrant population.
“We are more culpable than anyone because we are the ones who set the laws,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, Michigan Democrat.
Republicans, though, said that Mr. Biden erased Trump-era policies such as a border wall, only to see the border numbers explode. And they said that’s the message they get from Border Patrol agents themselves.
“Every single one of them has said in order for them to do their job they needed that wall to be constructed, they needed the policies that were in place during the Trump administration to be reinstated, and they needed more people. Every single one of them,” said Rep. Carlos Gimenez, Florida Republican.
Mr. Mayorkas said the wall can be breached. He said technology is the answer.
Under orders from Mr. Biden, Mr. Mayorkas has put a hold on wall construction and canceled a number of projects. He revealed that his department has had to spend $72 million on cancellation fees, paying to get out of contracts and deal with materials already bought.
That doesn’t include as much as $2 billion spent by the Pentagon to cancel wall-building contracts under its purview, according to an estimate by Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican.
There is still as much as $2.5 billion in wall money in the pipeline that Congress approved in past years that Mr. Biden has not been able to cancel.
Mr. Mayorkas said he will spend that money, though in his own way.
“We are well aware of our responsibility to spend the funds that have been appropriated to the wall,” he said. “We are undertaking an analysis of how most effectively to do so while honoring the president’s commitment. We are dedicated to spending those funds in a way that enhances safety and security.”
He said he has authorized construction on 68 new wall projects, completing gates and closing “gaps” in the wall. Mr. Mayorkas also said they are working on “infirmities” in construction under Mr. Trump.
“We’re seeing corrosion and other failings,” he said.
Rep. Ashley Hinson, Iowa Republican, displayed a photo showing piles of steel that were supposed to be used for wall construction, but which have been left to rust after the construction halt.
“This is corrosion right here,” she told the secretary. “To taxpayers, they see this as a huge slap in the face to see these pieces sitting there that could be used to actually deter people from coming into our country.”