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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas refused to call the increasingly volatile situation on the U.S. southern border a “crisis” while testifying before Congress on Wednesday and blasted Republicans who sought to make him use the label as oblivious to the migration chaos caused by the Trump administration.
Mayorkas’ appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee was focused on a recent surge in predominantly Central American children arriving at the border with Mexico hoping to claim asylum or other residency in the U.S.
Determined to turn the page on the Trump era, the Biden administration is allowing unaccompanied migrant kids to remain in the U.S. while seeking legal status, resulting in some detention facilities for minors overcrowding at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic still poses a great risk.
But Mayorkas vowed that the administration has a “plan to address” the overcrowding and took intense issue with Republicans like Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, who claimed Biden has caused a “humanitarian and border crisis” by scrapping a Trump policy that forced migrants to stay in Mexico, regardless of age.
“A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a 9-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future migration. That, to me, is a humanitarian crisis,” Mayorkas said, referring to the Trump administration’s 2018 family separation policy, which resulted in thousands of migrant children being torn from their loved ones, some of whom haven’t been reunified yet.
Still, Mayorkas conceded in his testimony that the Biden administration could’ve done a better job in notifying some U.S. border communities picked to host facilities for migrant teens and children now allowed to stay. He also acknowledged that some migrants have been released into the custody of sponsors in the U.S. without first being tested for COVID-19, though he said a new policy has been implemented to prevent such breaches in the future.
While unaccompanied migrant children are now allowed to stay in the country, President Biden decided to keep in place a Trump order that instructs U.S. authorities to expel most adult asylum seekers from the U.S. because of the pandemic.
The continuation of the public health order has drawn backlash from progressives, who were banking on Biden to make a clean cut with Trump’s entire immigration agenda upon taking office.
But Mayorkas, who immigrated to the U.S. with his family from Cuba as a child, said the pandemic is adding a complicated layer to reforming the immigration system.
“We have a very serious challenge, and I don’t think the difficulty of that challenge can be overstated,” he said.
Mayorkas’ testimony, his first before Congress since being confirmed as Biden’s DHS chief, came as U.S. immigration officials are reporting that the number of people caught attempting to cross the southern border has been rising steadily since late 2020 and last month surpassed 100,000. That’s the highest level since the pandemic began and is putting the U.S. on track to hit a 20-year high in migrant arrivals.