Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas vowed to Congress on Wednesday that the U.S. will maintain control of the Mexican border amid the looming surge of migrants, insisting that the Biden administration has a plan for dealing with the expected influx of more than a half-million illegal immigrants a month.
Republicans were incredulous. They said Mr. Mayorkas’ agents and officers have revealed that they are already stretched beyond breaking and that the looming end of President Trump’s COVID-related border shutdown policy next month will make it worse.
“Do you believe front-line agents and officers?” Rep. John Katko of New York, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, asked Mr. Mayorkas. “There’s not a single person on the border today that will tell you once Title 42 is lifted they won’t lose operational control.”
Title 42 is the statute allowing tighter security at the border based on the public health need to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Mayorkas said the border is secure and promised lawmakers: “We will not lose operational control of the border.”
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, said the assurance didn’t match his experience.
“I have never seen the border more broken. It is not under operational control. It is out of control,” he said.
Mr. Mayorkas faces two days of questioning on Capitol Hill, where Republicans and some Democrats said they were disappointed with Biden administration border policies over the past 15 months and a lack of planning for even worse days ahead.
Department of Homeland Security officials are preparing for as many as 18,000 illegal immigrants a day to surge across the southern border when Title 42 is lifted.
Mr. Mayorkas called that estimate a worst-case plan rather than a prediction, though he acknowledges that more people will come, topping the already record levels.
He released a 20-page plan Tuesday that he said will defend against the surge. It relocates some personnel, tries to streamline processing for border jumpers, and appeals to Mexico and Central American countries to block migrants making the journey.
Republicans wondered why the plan was announced now even though the border has been in chaos for more than a year. Mr. Mayorkas said much of the plan already was “underway.” Republicans said it didn’t seem like much of a plan, given the results.
The department tallied more than 220,000 encounters with border jumpers in March and has been above 150,000 every month since February 2020. That is the longest sustained level of illegal apprehensions on record.
“Are you testifying as you sit here today that the southwest border is secure?” asked Rep. Michael Guest, Mississippi Republican.
“Yes, I am,” Mr. Mayorkas said. He refused Republican demands to apologize and argued that he is doing a better job than the Trump administration.
Rep. Dan Bishop, North Carolina Republican, asked about the record number of migrants who died at the border last year. Mr. Mayorkas, citing immigrant rights groups, countered that 1,500 migrants were abused, kidnapped or killed under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.
Asked to say something to Americans who might be victimized by illegal immigrants caught and released into the country, Mr. Mayorkas said the Homeland Security Department under his watch has ousted a higher number of aggravated felons.
“We are more focused on public safety threats, true public safety threats to the homeland, than the prior administration was,” he said.
Democrats said blame for border problems lies not with Mr. Mayorkas but with Congress. They said lawmakers need to pass a broad bill dealing with the border and legalizing the current illegal immigrant population.
“We are more culpable than anyone because we are the ones who set the laws,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, Michigan Democrat.
Republicans said Mr. Biden erased Trump-era policies such as a border wall, only to see illegal crossings soar. They said that’s the message they get from Border Patrol agents.
“Every single one of them has said in order for them to do their job, they needed that wall to be constructed, they needed the policies that were in place during the Trump administration to be reinstated and they needed more people. Every single one of them,” said Rep. Carlos A. Gimenez, Florida Republican.
Mr. Mayorkas said the wall can be breached. He said technology is the answer.
Under orders from Mr. Biden, Mr. Mayorkas has put a hold on wall construction and canceled a number of projects. He revealed that his department has spent $72 million on cancellation fees to get out of contracts and deal with materials already bought.
That doesn’t include as much as $2 billion that the Pentagon spent to cancel wall-building contracts under its purview, according to an estimate by Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican.
As much as $2.5 billion in wall money that Congress approved in past years that Mr. Biden has not been able to cancel is still in the pipeline.
Mr. Mayorkas said he will spend that money, though in his own way.
“We are well aware of our responsibility to spend the funds that have been appropriated to the wall,” he said. “We are undertaking an analysis of how most effectively to do so while honoring the president’s commitment. We are dedicated to spending those funds in a way that enhances safety and security.”
He said he has authorized the construction of 68 projects, completing gates and closing “gaps” in the wall. Mr. Mayorkas also said officials are working on “infirmities” in construction under Mr. Trump.
“We’re seeing corrosion and other failings,” he said.
Rep. Ashley Hinson, Iowa Republican, displayed a photo showing piles of steel that were supposed to be used for wall construction but were left to rust after construction halted.
“This is corrosion right here,” she told the secretary. “To taxpayers, they see this as a huge slap in the face to see these pieces sitting there that could be used to actually deter people from coming into our country.”