Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas had a difficult week.
In appearances on Capitol Hill and in television interviews this week, Mayorkas struggled to answer questions about the border crisis. He now faces greater skepticism from lawmakers just two weeks from when the pandemic health policy Title 42 is set to expire, pending a court order, which is expected to worsen the migration problem.
The trouble for Mayorkas began when he claimed on Fox News Sunday that migrants who don’t have valid asylum claims “are promptly removed from the United States.”
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, challenged Mayorkas on the claim in a hearing Wednesday, stating that 85% of asylum claims are ultimately denied, yet DHS agency U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed fewer than 4% of noncitizens who should have been deported last year.
“According to information we’ve received, about 1.2 million unlawful migrants have been issued a final order of removal. Those are people who go through the asylum process and their claims are adjudicated, and they are denied. You only deported 59,000 people last year. That would be the lowest percentage in the history of the country,” Portman said. “With these numbers, how can you say that asylum-seekers whose claims were denied are ‘promptly removed’ from the United States?”
Mayorkas defended the low number of deportations, which are roughly 20% of what they were when he worked at DHS as deputy secretary under the Obama presidency. ICE, he said, was prioritizing removing illegal immigrants who had serious criminal histories. Portman asked Mayorkas to set the record straight and admit that despite his claims before committees and on television, those who were denied asylum were not being removed from the country.
“We should remove individuals who have made their claim,” Mayorkas admitted after Portman pressured him to amend his claim that all are removed from the country.
“Now we’re making progress,” said Portman.
Mayorkas’s statement also elicited a lengthy and unfavorable fact check from the Washington Post.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) grilled Mayorkas and other DHS officials during hearings, laying out the case that they have failed to help state and local officials deal with the border crisis.
“Yesterday, this committee heard from Secretary Mayorkas regarding the DHS plan for handling the expected influx of migrants,” Sinema said Thursday. “I have not heard the detail I need to be confident in the government’s plan.”
“Promises and platitudes are not enough,” she added.
The government is running out of time to prepare for even higher levels of illegal immigration come later this month. In April, the Biden administration said it would stop immediately turning away noncitizens who illegally crossed the land border, as had been the policy under Title 42.
However, it provided no more than a one-page document outlining how it would respond to the anticipated 750,000 people that could cross in the six weeks afterward, prompting criticism from members of President Joe Biden’s own party, including nine Senate Democrats. Republicans focused their criticisms on DHS not doing enough to deter people from coming and have claimed DHS is so focused on facilitating the release of migrants into the United States that it is enticing more people to come.
Local and state officials, including those in McAllen, Texas, Eagle Pass, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona, told the Washington Examiner that they have not received any direction from the federal government about how to prepare for May 23, prompting intervention from federal election officials such as Portman and Sinema. Lawmakers and media pressed Mayorkas on how DHS will respond when Title 42 ends and how the Biden administration will deter more migrants from coming to the U.S., as well as the DHS’s development of a government disinformation board.
The DHS’s updated planned response includes sending more federal employees from around the country to the border, working with Central and South American nations to address irregular migration, and vowing to put illegal immigrants in removal proceedings.
Mayorkas told Portman that the Biden administration is in the process of sending asylum officers to the border to decide claims rather than releasing people into the country and having them wait six to eight years to appear before an immigration judge. However, Portman shredded the plan on the basis that anyone whose claim is denied at the border could immediately appeal that decision and then get released into the U.S. to await a judge’s decision, which would only come years down the road due to the 1.6 million-case backlog.
Republicans on the House Homeland Security and Judiciary committees took aim at Mayorkas on Thursday for his selection of Nina Jankowicz as head of the department’s Disinformation Governance Board, which they have compared to the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Homeland Security and Judiciary members asked for more information about the intent behind the board and how it was developed, notably after Mayorkas admitted that he was “not aware” of the 33-year-old chairwoman’s previous comments likening coverage of Hunter Biden’s laptop to disinformation.
“Your recent testimony and media statements regarding the board, as well as a recent briefing for Committee staff, have only created more questions and concern. This Committee will carry out rigorous oversight of this board,” Rep. John Katko (R-NY) and members of the Homeland Security Committee wrote.