Lawmakers evaluated Alejandro Mayorkas to lead the Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday and grilled the hopeful future secretary on a range of issues focused on immigration enforcement and his time at the highest ranks of the department in 2015.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, asked about the caravan of migrants reportedly heading north from the southern border of Guatemala.
In 2019, immigration authorities at the border were overwhelmed by an influx of migrant families fleeing dangerous conditions of Central America's Northern Triangle -- Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. And according to the International Organization for Migration, thousands of migrants from Honduras fleeing violence, devastation caused in the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes and economic hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic were in Guatemala and moving towards Mexico, hoping to ultimately reach the U.S. Depending on how this situation develops, it may turn into one of the earlier immigration issues the Biden administration faces.
Border Patrol has seen spikes in unauthorized border crossing attempts in recent months and Senate Republicans at the hearing appeared to cast the primary drivers of migration in economic terms.
Mayorkas confirmed that they, along with anyone approaching the U.S. border, would be processed on a case-by-case basis. "Senator, we are a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of laws," Myorkas said.
Immigration enforcement has come under deep scrutiny as President Donald Trump instituted hard-line policies which limited access to humanitarian and refugee protections. As a principal agency in these efforts, Immigration and Customs Enforcement became a lightning rod for backlash among Democrats and immigrant advocates with lawmakers including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a handful of House members calling for its dismantlement.
Mayorkas maintained on Tuesday that ICE should not be de-funded and that it would require further study to determine whether additional ICE resources are necessary.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson aggressively questioned the nominee about the southern border.
After avoiding explicitly answering whether a person seeking financial gain presents a qualifying asylum claim, Mayorkas generally acknowledged that searching for employment advancement is not grounds for asylum under current law.
"Senator, the asylum laws are well established and they provide that an individual who is fleeing persecution by reason of his or her member in a particular social group is deserving of protection," Mayorkas said.
Asked whether any of the barriers on the southern border should be dismantled, Mayorkas also said it would require further examination to determine how the administration is legally required to use money previously allocated by Congress to construct a "border-wall system."
Asked to address the recent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol and ongoing domestic terrorism threats, Mayorkas said DHS had room for improvement with information dissemination to aid front-line officers. He was supportive an inter-agency terror intelligence commission as a way to bolster the department's lead role in responding to domestic terror threats.
"I think that we can do a lot better in the distribution of that information to our brave first responders in local communities throughout the country," Mayorkas said.
Mayorkas was also asked about a federal watchdog report from 2015 in which he was accused of improperly meddling with visa applications for wealthy business people. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees cited in the report said the then-deputy homeland security secretary was in touch with applicants outside of normal channels.
The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General review, which relies on accounts from more than a dozen Homeland Security employees, found that Mayorkas' actions "created an appearance of favoritism and special access."
In response, Mayorkas said senators and House members asked for his intervention and he maintained that his involvement was aimed at improving the applications process.
"When a leader enters federal service with the authority to fix problems, that leader has the responsibility to fix problems," Mayorkas said.
He pointed out his involvement in "dozens and dozens" more cases beyond the those mentioned in the report. The inspector general was tasked with reviewing just three of the thousands of high-profile visas issued each year and did not conclude that anything improper occurred in the handling of the applications.