Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday defended the Biden administration’s handling of both the crisis at the southern border and its reduced interior enforcement -- as Republicans accuse the administration of encouraging the surge with looser immigration policies.
Mayorkas was grilled by Republicans at a House Appropriations Committee hearing about the administration’s release of migrants into the interior as it also reins in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with new guidance that limits officers to arresting and deporting narrow groups of illegal immigrants.
The administration has been dealing with a surge in migrants, with more than 178,000 encountered in April. While many are expelled due to Title 42 public health protections, the administration has been releasing some family units into the interior and uniting unaccompanied children with parents or guardians already in the country.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., asked Mayorkas if there are any consequences for illegally crossing the border "because frankly, it appears that President Biden’s message to one and all is the U.S. has no limits to whom can come because the administration will not enforce any of its immigration laws -- is that the message, that this country will not enforce its immigration laws?"
"No, it’s not," Mayorkas replied. "The president could not have been clearer in his articulation of this administration’s position nor could I have been clearer and continue to be so, which is the border is closed and this administration administers and enforces the laws of the United States of America -- and that is not only the laws of accountability but also the humanitarian laws that Congress passed years ago."
Fleischmann focused on ICE in particular, which has seen a significant drop in both its arrests and deportations since the administration issued interim guidance in February. That guidance narrows ICE enforcement priorities to three categories: recent border crossers, national security threats and "aggravated felons."
The Washington Post reported that agents make an average of one arrest every two months. Mayorkas said he did not believe that statistic was accurate, while also standing by the guidance.
"Enforcement is not a quantitative issue, it is a qualitative one," he said. "The question is as to whom are we dedicating our resources and what will deliver the greatest public safety results for the American public and that is what I am focused on."
He went on to reiterate that the guidance and the actions taken by the administration "speak powerfully to the fact the border is closed and that we enforce the laws that Congress has passed, but we will do so effectively to ensure the greatest impact and outcome from the resources that we have."
The administration has blamed ‘root causes" for the surge in migrants at the border as well as an alleged lack of preparedness for a migrant surge on the part of the Trump administration. Critics have instead pointed to the rollback of Trump-era border protections, lax enforcement and what they say is a message to migrants that the border is open.
Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., said that there was "invasion" at the border that was being fueled by the Biden administration.
"It looks like you rolled out a big welcome mat that says 'send us your kids' and that is criminal," he said. "Because as long as they know if they get to our border we’re going to take them and turn them into American citizens and let them roam free are our country, people desperate in those countries are going to continue to take that risk."
Mayorkas pushed back, saying he disagreed "from beginning to end" with Palazzo’s claims.
"Individuals are expelled under Title 42 of the U.S. code, those who are not expelled are placed into immigration proceedings where they are able to make claims for relief under the laws Congress passed, and if their claims for relief do not prevail they are removed from the United States," he said.
"It is not an invasion, people are not coming in without regular order, they are being placed in immigration proceedings, they have the ability to make a claim as the law provides to an asylum officer, to an immigration judge and the courts of the United States," he said.
Since February, 61,312 migrants have been released into the interior by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with either a Notice to Appear at an immigration hearing or an I-385, which fast tracks migrants out of custody with a notice to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who was put in charge of outreach to Mexico and Northern Triangle countries to tackle root causes of the crisis, will visit Guatemala and Mexico next month.