The border situation isn’t as bad as it is being portrayed, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told senators on Tuesday, saying that the 20-year high of Border Patrol apprehensions is misleading because many of the migrants are repeat-offenders who are making multiple attempts each month.
Mr. Mayorkas said he has a vision to bring things under control and blamed the coronavirus pandemic for complicating those efforts, but vowed to see it through.
“We have a plan, we are executing the plan, the plan takes time to execute,” he said during a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill.
Under pointed questioning from Republicans, he declined to say whether he supports the White House’s budget for ICE or instead would embrace the cuts proposed by House Democrats.
“What I am focused on is the wise expenditure of funds,” he said. Later he added, “in certain respects, I think we should increase it, and in other respects, I think we should reduce it.”
That drew laughter from Sen. Mitt Romney, who’d been trying to pin Mr. Mayorkas down.
“I asked a simple question, do you think the budget should be reduced or not, and you responded like a politician,” the Utah Republican said. “What can I say, I’m a politician too.”
Mr. Mayorkas also would not answer a litany of specific cases presented by senators where ICE officers say they have been ordered not to arrest illegal immigrant sex offenders.
In one case presented by Sen. James Lankford, a migrant who’d been deported before and had a conviction for sexual assault on a juvenile under 14 was allowed to remain free. Another rejected case involved someone who’d been convicted of indecency with a child under five years of age, and who is on the lifetime sexual offender registry.
Senators said the thwarted arrests were the result of new Biden administration limits on enforcement at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement activities.
Mr. Mayorkas, though, said he thought sex offenders should qualify as priorities even under the new limits.
“Those types of criminals are a priority for arrest and removal. That is what the guidelines say,” he said.
Mr. Mayorkas was testifying amid an unprecedented surge of illegal migration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Border Patrol agents in June recorded 178,416 apprehensions, marking a 21-year high.
The secretary said that number is misleading because it includes a high rate of recidivists, or migrants who were caught, expelled under a coronavirus border shutdown policy, then quickly turned around and tried again.
“What I am saying is the number of encounters, the number of apprehensions, does not equal the number of individuals,” he said.
That was little comfort to Sen. Josh Hawley.
“This is a crisis you have engineered,” the Missouri Republican said.
Beyond the overall border apprehension number, the other yardsticks also look grim. Seizures of fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid, are up dramatically — and experts just like with illegal immigration, the more that’s caught, the more that’s getting through. Migrants are dying at a rapid pace from exposure to the elements, drowning in the Rio Grande or in car crashes, with smugglers increasingly willing to resist arrest or attempt high-speed getaways.
Children traveling without parents are rushing the border at record numbers, drawn by a new, relaxed policy the Biden administration put in place that allows most of them to be caught then quickly released. A worst-case outcome of that situation was averted this weekend when Border Patrol agents sniffed out an attempt by a registered sex offender to try to orchestrate a 16-year-old Guatemalan girl’s travel to the U.S.
The Biden administration has struggled for answers while rejecting the term “crisis” to describe what it’s battling at the border.
Mr. Mayorkas and other top administration officials blame the surge on conditions in Central America, saying poverty and violence have sent people rushing north.
Migrants themselves, though, say they are coming in large part because of changes the Biden team has made that make it more likely many of them will be released into the U.S., despite their illegal crossing.
Late Monday, ahead of his committee appearance, Mr. Mayorkas‘s department announced a rare get-tough policy, saying it would expand the use of expedited removal at the border. That procedure allows immigration officers to quickly deport people who jump the border and don’t appear to have valid claims of protection.
Immigrant-rights activists were outraged.
“This is an appalling announcement,” Omar C. Jadwat, head of the immigrants’ rights project at the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote on Twitter. “Increasing the use of expedited removal — particularly for families — is the opposite of what the government should be doing.”