Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, watching the U.S.-Mexico border situation spiral downward, blamed his Trump predecessors Monday for leaving him with a “gutted” system that he said is unable to manage the needs.
Mr. Mayorkas declined to label the surge of migrants, many of whom local officials say are being released without COVID-19 testing directly into American communities, as a “crisis.”
Instead, the new secretary called it a “challenge” that his team is meeting.
“What we are seeing now at the border is the immediate result of the dismantling of the system and the time it takes to rebuild it virtually from scratch,” Mr. Mayorkas said at the White House.
He pleaded with migrants not to make the trip and insisted that people who arrive now will be expelled — but also acknowledged that some are not kicked out and have been allowed to stay.
His pronouncements came hours before President Biden held a video meeting with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose cooperation will be critical to stemming the new surge of illegal immigrants that’s rushed north in recent weeks.
Mr. Biden offered an apology for what he suggested were rough relationships between the two countries in the past, but said the Obama administration saw Mexico as an equal partner, and that also will be the view of the new administration.
“You are equal,” Mr. Biden said during the portion of the meeting when reporters were present.
After reporters were kicked out, the two men were expected to talk about Mr. Lopez Obrador’s new plan for a future special immigration work deal for Mexico and Central America, and about what more Mexico can do to stem the flow of illegal immigrants coming right now.
In recent weeks America’s southern neighbor, which had been very cooperative during the final years of the Trump administration in taking back illegal immigrants who’d crossed its territory en route to the U.S., began to refuse in more cases.
That’s heaped new hurdles on a Biden team trying to balance its hopes for a more lenient immigration system with the reality of waves of mini-caravans jumping the border.
The administration seems conflicted on whether the situation at the border constitutes a crisis.
A senior official, briefing reporters Sunday afternoon, did label it a crisis several times, as he previewed Monday’s virtual meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Lopez Obrador.
“For now we are focused on managing a crisis at the border,” the official said.
But Mr. Mayorkas would not use the word crisis on Monday.
“The answer is no,” he said. “I think there is a challenge at the border we are managing.”
That struck the administration’s critics as unrealistic.
Ken Cuccinelli, who served as acting deputy secretary at the end of the Trump administration, said the Biden team was refusing to acknowledge the situation on the ground.
“If there’s no crisis, why is HHS, DHS and DOD all building or planning on building tents, housing, etc.?” he said in an email. “Even alcoholics know that you don’t solve your problem until you admit you have one.”
Mr. Mayorkas, in his remarks Monday, said migrants should wait before coming, given the changes that the administration has made to allow folks to enter.
“We are not saying don’t come. We are saying don’t come now, because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible,” he said.
Mr. Mayorkas insisted people who jump the border now will be expelled under coronavirus rules. Those rules were put in place by the Trump administration and have been preserved by the Biden team, even as it complains about other policies of former President Donald Trump.
The Washington Times, though, has found that hundreds of migrants — mostly families — are likely being released each day across the border.
Local officials say the migrants are not being tested for coronavirus, they’re being dropped off in restaurant and store parking lots, and they are getting on buses and trains to head deeper into the U.S.
Mr. Mayorkas claimed Monday that testing is going on.
He said migrants caught by the Border Patrol are turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which he said does test and can quarantine.
“As a matter of process individuals — family units are brought into ICE custody,” he said.
“They are tested. ICE has the capability to test them, to isolate and quarantine them as the results so dictate. And then to address their needs as the immigration process provides.”
That doesn’t match with what local officials tell The Times.
They said not all of the migrants are turned over to ICE, and both ICE and Border Patrol are releasing people at the border directly into communities without testing.
In Arizona, they’ve been dropped off in Walmart and fast-food restaurant parking lots, according to the local sheriffs.
A spokesman for the Border Patrol said it is doing regular health screenings, which include temperature checks and a series of questions. But a COVID test is not part of that. If the screening triggers a suspicion of COVID-19, local officials say, the migrants are taken to a health facility.
Mr. Mayorkas was deputy Homeland Security secretary for the final years of the Obama administration, when it faced its own border surge of illegal immigrant children and families.
The Obama team relied on detention of families to bring down the numbers.
On Monday, Mr. Mayorkas said that when he became secretary a month ago he found the department’s immigration system in bad shape after four years under Mr. Trump. He said he was working to erase the “cruelty” of Trump policies.
One move was to announce members of the team he’s put together to reunite children with parents after they were separated during the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border policy from 2018.
Thousands of separations occurred during the policy, and despite years of effort, some parents who were deported without their children still have not been contacted to determine their wishes.