Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas faced blunt questions from lawmakers on Wednesday about how the Biden administration is handling and preparing for the eventual end of pandemic-justified border restrictions that have reduced humanitarian relief options for asylum seekers at the border.
On Monday, a federal judge in Louisiana indicated he would pause the rollback of Title 42 -- the Trump-era policy that allowed migrants seeking asylum along the southern border to be expelled under the public health emergency authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
The Democratic chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, asked Mayorkas directly if he believes it's time to end Title 42 and, as he has done before, Mayorkas deferred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Our responsibility in the Department of Homeland Security is to implement the Title 42 authority of the CDC at our border and to implement it effectively and judiciously according to the law. We are mindful that there can be an increase in migratory flows encountered at our southern border should Title 42 come to an end, as the CDC has determined it needs to do by May 23. Our responsibility therefore, is to prepare and plan for that eventuality."
The CDC rescinded the policy earlier this month, and it was expected to be phased out by May 23 before the federal judge announced his intent to block the recision.
Judge Robert Summerhays said he intends to issue a temporary restraining order in the case if the Justice Department and Arizona, Missouri and Louisiana, the three states that sued to pause the rollback, can come to an agreement.
A senior administration official told reporters the administration intends to comply with the temporary restraining order the judge intends to issue, but the administration disagrees with the premise of the restraining order. For now, the administration continues to prepare for the eventual end of Title 42. Mayorkas issued a memo on Tuesday outlining the objectives DHS plans to carry out regardless of when Title 42 comes to an end.
The six-part plan explains a variety of steps the administration has already started taking to prepare for a potential surge in migration. It involves surging resources to the border including medical supplies and personnel, speeding up case processing at CBP holding centers, working with NGOs to transition migrants from government custody to local communities and stepping up efforts to crack down on human smuggling organizations.
"I've been to the border approximately eight times and in my last visit I heard loudly and clearly the concerns of our heroic, incredibly dedicated Border Patrol agents about their need for additional support so that they can get out into the field and interdict individuals seeking to evade law enforcement and cross our border illegally," Mayorkas told lawmakers.
The secretary testified that about 300 case processors have been contracted to increase capacity and move those who enter without authorization through the system.
House Republicans took the opportunity Wednesday to launch a barrage of attacks against Mayorkas and his handling of border security, going so far as to call for his resignation and foreshadowing his impeachment if the GOP takes control of Congress this year.
"[Border agents] have consistently and repeatedly told me, they are overwhelmed and understaffed. Border patrol agents have also told me that once Title 42 authority ends, there will be an even bigger surge of migrants attempting to cross In fact, unprecedented surges and they will lose operational control of some or all the southwest border notions that you yourself have acknowledged," GOP ranking member John Katko told the secretary.
Congressman Michael McCaul, who represents Texas said the border is "out of control" and the only reason why they rescinded the previous policies was because the administration "didn't like the former President."
"Your responsibility by law is to protect the United States, both air land and sea," McCaul said. "You have failed in this mission when it comes to our land border."
Mayorkas disputed claims that border security has fallen apart, testifying that more aggravated felons have been removed from the country under his watch compared to the Trump administration. However, the secretary has acknowledged the challenges facing border agents tasked with preparing for the end of Title 42.
"When the Title 42 public health order is lifted, we anticipate migration levels will increase, as smugglers will seek to take advantage of and profit from vulnerable migrants," Mayorkas wrote in a prior memo titled, "DHS Plan for Southwest Border Security and Preparedness."
DHS officials told reporters in March they could expect to see as many as 18,000 migrants along the southern border per day, when Title 42 gets lifted.
Mayorkas has stressed Title 42 is not an immigration policy, but rather born out of the public health crisis.
"We inherited an immigration system from the prior administration that had been studiously dismantled and so was unprepared to meet the challenges posed by the high numbers of non citizens arriving at our borders today," according to a senior Administration official who briefed reporters on Tuesday.
In addition to the two hearings on Wednesday, Mayorkas goes in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Last week, Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, wrote to Mayorkas in anticipation of his testimony.
"The Biden Administration's radical immigration policies have caused a humanitarian and security crisis along our southwest border," Jordan wrote. "The American people deserve answers and accountability for the Biden Administration's lawlessness along the southwest border."