Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas admitted Wednesday that his department has released migrants who jumped the border into communities without testing them for the coronavirus, but he said officials are working to fix the problem.
Testifying to Congress, Mr. Mayorkas was unable to say how many people were released without testing over the nearly two months the Biden administration has been in office.
He repeatedly said it was his “policy” to test for coronavirus infection, but two hours into a hearing with the Homeland Security Committee, he admitted that the department was falling well short of that goal. He did add that improvements have been made.
“There have been times when we have not met our responsibility as well as we should have. Those instances are brought to the attention of leadership, and they are addressed and we improved based on the mistakes made,” he said.
Pressed further, he said, “There were instances in which individuals were released.”
Mr. Mayorkas said the policy has been to hope communities and charities are able to conduct the testing when Border Patrol agents release migrants.
When asked directly how often they met that policy, he said they “are doing the best we can.”
Rep. Andrew S. Clyde, Georgia Republican, pointed out that U.S. citizens returning to the country from a foreign land must show negative COVID-19 tests taken within the previous three days in order to enter. He said that meant illegal immigrants are held to a “more lenient standard” than Americans.
“That is not true,” Mr. Mayorkas said.
Local officials estimate that thousands of migrants have been caught and released without testing over the past two months.
For those who tested positive, local officials had no ability to isolate or quarantine them in the early going. Now, Mr. Mayorkas said, the federal government can reimburse them for costs.
He said Homeland Security has signed a contract with an outside vendor to begin testing at Border Patrol facilities.
Mr. Mayorkas also acknowledged that people whom the government has designated as “known or suspected terrorists” have been arrested in recent months trying to cross the southwestern border, confirming a report by House Republicans during a visit to Texas this week.
The secretary said known or suspected terrorists have been entering the U.S. for years, but he said he is confident that his department can detect those making the attempt.
“That is not a new phenomenon,” he said.
Still, the acknowledgment gives some weight to an argument the Trump administration made that the southern border was vulnerable to terrorist incursions — albeit in far smaller numbers than the thousands of people Trump officials claimed.
Mr. Mayorkas was the No. 2 man at the department during the final years of the Obama administration, when Homeland Security faced the first surge of unaccompanied juveniles in 2014, and then a surge of families in 2015 and 2016.
He said this week that the current migrant surge on the southwestern border could be the worst in 20 years.
He blamed the surge on a host of factors: a worsening pandemic in Central America, less cooperation from Mexican officials and what he called an immigration system “gutted” by the Trump team.
Migrants tell a different story. They say they made the journey because they believed they would get more lenient treatment under the Biden administration.
In many cases, they are correct.
While a majority of border jumpers are still being expelled under a pandemic health emergency order — one Trump-era move that the Biden team hasn’t canceled — unaccompanied juveniles and families with children 6 and younger are not being turned away. The children are the fastest-growing demographic of border jumpers.
Mr. Mayorkas said the administration is on top of things.
“Of course we have a plan. We have a short-term plan, we have a medium-term plan and we have a long-term plan, and we are executing on all fronts to address the situation at the border,” he said.
Some members of Congress have said the border situation will require an emergency spending bill. Mr. Mayorkas contested that.
“That is not certain by any means,” he said.
The Washington Times reported last month that Mr. Mayorkas told border officials to spend whatever they need without worry about cash. According to an internal email seen by The Times, he is considering trying to divert money from wall construction to cover the emergency costs of handling the surge.
Mr. Mayorkas angered some Republicans on Wednesday with lengthy answers that weren’t always to the point.
At one juncture, he was confronted with his remarks made at the White House this month when he told migrants: “We are not saying don’t come; we’re just saying don’t come now.”
The remark has been the subject of wide coverage, though Mr. Mayorkas said Wednesday he didn’t “recall” saying it.
Rep. Clay Higgins, Louisiana Republican, called the secretary’s testimony “quite nauseating.”
Rep. Kat Cammack, Florida Republican, recalled a high school classmate who was “kidnapped by an illegal who had been deported multiple times.”
“How many more Ambers have to be kidnapped across America before you will take action?” she demanded.
Mr. Mayorkas called her question “extraordinarily disrespectful” and told her he considered it an attack on “the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” the congresswoman replied.