Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the Biden administration's handling of a variety of immigration issues at a Senate hearing Thursday where the characterization of conditions at the border split largely along party lines.
Mayorkas repeatedly touted the progress made in reducing the number of children sitting in Customs and Border Protection custody and pointed out that the number has dropped in recent months.
The number of unaccompanied children taken into custody roughly doubled from February to March, accounting for about 18,890 individuals, according to officials. Fewer unaccompanied children crossed the border in April, according to CBP, and the number of unaccompanied minors in USBP custody dropped dramatically while the rate of transfer to better-equipped Health and Human Services facilities increased. The number of total arrests and detentions at the border, however, increased slightly to 178,622 in April.
Most migrants were sent back using a public health code U.S. Title 42, a controversial policy that facilitates the rapid removal or "expulsion" of migrants from the border. The Trump administration invoked "Title 42" last year, citing the global pandemic as the central reason behind turning people away quickly. The Biden administration has continued its use with the exception of children who were exempted from "Title 42" by a judge in November.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, remained critical of Mayorkas and the Biden administration and argued that the crisis is far from over, emphasizing the elevated levels of arrests and detentions at the border.
"These children have only been moved from one government agency to another," Portman said.
The Republican senator advocated for more Border Patrol agents, more technology and the completion of Trump's so-called "border wall," which the Biden administration continues to review.
Contrary to the advice of many humanitarian advocates, Portman insisted that decisions about entry and release into the U.S. should be made at the border. This implies the use of a rapid removal system that resembles the fast-track and asylum adjudication programs first rolled out under the Trump administration. Immigrant advocates have taken issue with asylum decisions made at the border and have criticized the practices for limitations they place on access to counsel for migrants.
Mayorkas urged caution and consideration of the dire situation facing children who cross.
"We are addressing the needs of unaccompanied children who arrived at our southern border without a parent or legal guardian," Mayorkas said. "Children who have fled torture, persecution, extreme violence and poverty."
He placed blame on the prior administration and the COVID-19 pandemic for creating "challenges" the Biden administration needed to overcome.
"They did nothing to facilitate addressing the surge. What they did was they dismantled the tools that we had to address it. And they tore down the programs that could have helped alleviate the pressure."
The secretary also acknowledged that under the Biden administration, too many children were placed in Border Patrol custody.
"A Border Patrol station is no place for a child," he said.
Mayorkas referenced the deployment of FEMA to assist in the effort to house children as well as the use of a volunteer Department of Homeland Security workforce.
"What we did was deploy experts in the vetting of individuals with respect to their identity and their qualifications, we took asylum and refugee officers who deal with these very issues in the hottest spots around the world, and apply their technical expertise and experience to the vetting of the sponsors, and we are working as hard as we can to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. We learn from mistakes and we move forward."
Mayorkas said the bottlenecks that resulted in overcrowded conditions at Border Patrol facilities in recent months could have been avoided if preventative measures had been taken. He proposed to the committee establishing "contracting architecture" to allow for the rapid deployment of resources to respond to surges in migration.
Pressed by Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., about the international agreements the Trump administration used to send Guatemalan asylum seekers to Honduras, Mayorkas simply answered that he believed the agreements were unsafe.
The Safe Third Country agreements, in my opinion, put children in harm's way," Mayorkas said.