Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Monday urged migrants thinking of coming to the United States to "wait" as the Biden administration rebuilds a "gutted" immigration system -- as he claimed there is no crisis at the U.S. southern border.
When asked during a press briefing at the White House about whether there is a "crisis" at the border, amid a surge of unaccompanied child migrants, Mayorkas said "no."
"The men and women of the Department of Homeland Security are working around the clock seven days a week to ensure that we do not have a crisis at the border—that we manage the challenge, as acute as the challenge is," Mayorkas said, adding that the "challenge" is not just for the government, but for non-governmental organizations and border communities.
"All understand it is imperative," he said. "Everyone understand what occurred before us and what we need to do now."
He added: "And we are getting it done."
Appearing in the White House briefing room, Mayorkas also took aim at the prior administration -- and said the Department of Homeland Security is working to "replace the cruelty" of the Trump administration with "an orderly humane and safe immigration process."
"It is hard and it will take time, but rest assured, we are going to get it done," Mayorkas said, while adding that it is "important to understand what we have inherited, because it defines the situation of how it currently stands."
"The prior administration dismantled our immigration system in its entirety," Mayorkas said. "Quite frankly, the entire system was gutted."
Mayorkas claimed that under the previous administration, "no planning had been done to protect frontline personnel of U.S. Customs and Border Protection" among others, including "individuals coming to our border."
"It takes time to build out of the depths of cruelty that the administration before us established," he said. "What we are seeing now at the order is the immediate result of the dismantlement of the system and the time that it takes to rebuild it virtually from scratch."
Mayorkas said President Biden has a "multipart strategy" to execute that vision, including ways the administration is working with the Mexican government and international organizations in Mexico, vaccinating frontline workers at ports of entry, and more.
But Mayorkas reiterated a stark warning to those considering coming to the U.S. southern border.
"They need to wait," Mayorkas said. "If they come, if families come, if single adults come to the border, we are obligated to, in the service of public health, including the health of the very people thinking of coming, to impose travel restrictions under CDC guidelines and return them to Mexico—and we have done that."
Mayorkas then added: "We are not saying don’t come. We are saying don’t come now, because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process for them as quickly as possible."
Mayorkas’ comments come before Biden is set to have a virtual meeting with Mexican President Manuel López Obrador as the new administration has taken steps to roll back Trump-era immigration policies.
López Obrador is reportedly expected to propose a new Bracero-style immigrant labor program to Biden, which could bring 600,000 to 800,000 Mexican and Central American immigrants a year to work legally in the United States.
A senior Biden administration official declined to say whether Biden would support or oppose that proposal, but told the Associated Press that both the U.S. and Mexico agree on the need to expand legal pathways for migration.
The original Bracero program allowed Mexicans to work temporarily in the United States to fill labor shortages during World War II and for a couple of decades after the war. López Obrador said the U.S. economy needs Mexican workers because of "their strength, their youth."
The Biden administration official told the Associated Press that the meeting would enable Biden to begin to institutionalize the relationship with Mexico, in a swipe at former President Trump, whose administration’s relationship with Mexico involved the threat of tariffs, a crackdown on migration and his efforts to construct a border wall along the U.S. southern border.
The border wall was a paramount 2016 campaign promise for Trump, who vowed Mexico would pay for its construction.
Mexico did not pay for the wall. López Obrador's government did, however, send troops to Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala to deal with an unprecedented wave of asylum-seekers bound for the U.S.
Mexico hosted about 70,000 people seeking U.S. asylum while they waited for dates in immigration courts, a policy known as Remain in Mexico and officially as Migrant Protection Protocols.
Meanwhile, upon taking office, Biden immediately began to unwind Remain in Mexico, suspending it for new arrivals on Jan. 20, and announcing soon after that an estimated 26,000 people with active cases could be released in the United States.
With regard to the Remain in Mexico policy, Mayorkas on Monday said the administration is working on an "innovative system" to address individuals "forced to remain in Mexico," saying they are working with the Mexican government and international organizations to develop virtual platforms which enables individuals with active cases in the Remain in Mexico program to "register for relief using their phones."
"Organizations will then work with those individuals to test them, process their cases, and transport them safely," Mayorkas said Monday. "And according to a defined schedule, to the port of entry, where we are awaiting them and can process them through the port of entry successfully."
Meanwhile, Obrador is expected to ask Biden during their meeting about sharing U.S. COVID-19 vaccine supply with Mexico, but when asked whether the president would support that proposal, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave an emphatic "no."
"No," she said. "The president has made clear that he is focused on ensuring vaccines are accessible to every American. That is our focus. The next step is economic recovery."
Psaki said Biden would look to Mexico and Canada, so that "we can open our borders and build back better."
"But our focus, his focus, the administration's focus is making sure every American is vaccinated, and when we accomplish that objective, we're happy to discuss further steps beyond that."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.