Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas was grilled by lawmakers Wednesday amid the migrant surge at the southern border.
A record increase in crossing attempts by unaccompanied migrant children continues to overwhelm Border Patrol resources in the southwest.
In his opening statement to the House Homeland Security Committee, Mayorkas reiterated that the department faces a difficult situation at the border – but stopped short of calling it a crisis.
He highlighted the administration’s efforts at rolling back some Trump-era policies such as the “Remain in Mexico” protocols and stressed that most people crossing the border are single adults who are immediately sent back.
Mayorkas has led the deployment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and has overseen the reassignment of personnel from other areas of the country to aid authorities on the front lines.
This week, the number of minors in Border Patrol custody ballooned to more than 4,200, according to sources familiar with the data.
Many kids were spending days in crowded holding cells, waiting to be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The delays comes as a population of about 8,800 children continue to be under the care of the refugee resettlement office.
In a statement Tuesday, Mayorkas suggested one of the reasons children are being held in Border Patrol custody for longer than the 72-hour limit mandated by law is because the HHS is having capacity issues.
The Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas will start functioning as a transition facility for unaccompanied migrant kids starting Wednesday, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. It’s the latest facility to come online in an attempt to provide a safe and sanitary place to hold unaccompanied children after they cross the border.
Mayorkas insisted in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” Tuesday that the influx of migrants is under control, and, while he urged migrants to not come to the U.S. at this time, he stopped short of saying they should never make an attempt.
“Give us the time to rebuild the system that was entirely dismantled in the prior administration, and we have in fact begun to rebuild that system,” he told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos.
Pressed on his comments to ABC News that the government needs more time before it can handle those who want to cross, Mayorkas defended U.S. asylum law. He disputed suggestions from Republican lawmakers that illegal border crossing attempts are categorically disqualifying. “A claim of asylum — an individual fleeing persecution by reason of his or her membership in a particular social group — a claim of asylum is a claim that is recognized by law in the United States of America, and an individual who makes a claim of asylum is not breaking the law.”
Mayorkas on Wednesday disputed the notion that the situation at the border is unmanageable.
“We have a very serious challenge and I don’t think the difficulty of that challenge can be overstated,” he said. “We also have a plan to address it, we are executing on our plan, and we will succeed.”
Part of the plan involved coronavirus testing for migrants allowed to stay in the United States. He explained to lawmakers that people who are allowed to stay are tested and quarantined at local and nonprofit facilities and those partners can seek reimbursement. “We are working now, as appropriated by Congress, to fund directly community based organizations and living facilities to conduct the testing and the quarantine,” Mayorkas said.
When those resources are not available, he said the department is working to set up a third party vendor to test those in Customs and Border Protection custody.
A testy moment came when Republican Rep. Kat Cammack told a story about one of her classmates from high school she said was kidnapped by a person illegally in the country. “How many have to be kidnapped across America before you will take action?” Cammack said. She suggested that a more lenient standard applies to foreign nationals crossing the border than to U.S. citizens.
“I find that question to be extraordinarily disrespectful, disrespectful, not only to me but disrespectful to the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security, and to all the front-line personnel throughout this country who dedicate themselves to the safety and security of the American people,” Mayorkas responded.
As the border crises worsens, Mayorkas is also facing questions over Russian interference in the 2020 election. On Tuesday, the Department of Justice, FBI and DHS issued a report that assessed the election infrastructure security concerns.
The agencies found no evidence that “any foreign government-affiliated actor prevented voting, changed votes, or disrupted the ability to tally votes or to transmit election results in a timely manner; altered any technical aspect of the voting process; or otherwise compromised the integrity of voter registration information of any ballots cast during 2020 federal elections.”
They did find that Russian and Iranian campaigns targeted multiple critical infrastructure sectors that compromised some of the election functions but “did not materially affect the integrity of voter data, the ability to vote, the tabulation of votes, or the timely transmission of election results.”
Mayorkas’ department also oversees CISA the cyber agency responsible for the federal response to the SolarWinds breach.
The administration has yet to outline what exactly their response will be to the hack which was attributed to Russia.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said Rep. Kat Cammack discussed a classmate who was killed by a person illegally in the country. Cammack actually said the classmate was kidnapped.