Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas toured the border in Texas on Tuesday and gave reporters a firsthand look at a flight shipping illegal immigrants out of the country, portraying a position of strength as he prepared to battle a renewed border surge later this month.
Mr. Mayorkas also promised to have his agents and officers start bringing more criminal charges against border jumpers, threatening jail time for some offenders. That would be an elevation beyond the deportation consequences that usually apply.
And he delivered a plaintive plea to would-be migrants to stay home, telling them to be wary of paying smugglers to help them make the journey.
“Do not place your lives in the hands of individuals who only seek to exploit your lives for the sake of profit,” he said.
But he also said the U.S. will welcome anyone who makes a valid claim of protection under its laws, acknowledging that many who do come will in fact achieve their goal of getting a foothold in the U.S. by saying they want to file asylum cases.
It’s that dual messaging that has left the Biden administration struggling to manage a record migrant surge.
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Customs and Border Protection announced this week that it nabbed 234,000 unauthorized border crossers in April. Experts said that’s the worst monthly number on record.
Things could get significantly worse once the administration cancels the Title 42 pandemic border policy. The policy is scheduled to end Monday, though a federal judge is pondering whether to issue a preliminary injunction that would keep Title 42 in place.
Homeland Security is preparing for as many as 18,000 unauthorized border jumpers a day once Title 42 ends. By comparison, it faced an average of 7,800 a day in April.
“If the Biden administration revokes the use of the Title 42 health policy next week, our border crisis will become a catastrophe,” said Sen. Rob Portman, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Mr. Mayorkas’ trip, as well as the access he granted reporters to witness an Immigration and Customs Enforcement flight removing migrants from the country, was intended to display readiness for what lies ahead.
The flight from Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas, was carrying 132 migrants back to Guatemala.
Border Report said those on the flight were being expelled under the Title 42 pandemic border shutdown policy. That’s different than the usual deportation process, which involves a legal removal judgment.
Those who return after a formal removal can face stiffened criminal penalties, and Mr. Mayorkas signaled an eagerness Tuesday to bring more of those cases.
“We will be increasing the number of criminal prosecutions,” he said. “There are more cases that warrant criminal prosecution than those cases being brought.”
His decision to give media access to the deportation flight is part of a new effort to show unauthorized border jumpers may not always succeed in gaining the foothold they are seeking.
Last week Homeland Security revealed new ads aimed at Central American nations, warning migrants not to make the trip in the first place. Those digital ads suggest people may die along the way, and warn that entering the U.S. illegally is a crime.
The problem is that jumping the border is often successful.
About half of the 234,000 migrants CBP recorded showing up at the border in April were caught and released by agents and officers. And tens of thousands more were transferred to ICE and then released into communities.
That means that even before the end of Title 42, illegal immigrants had a better than 50-50 chance of gaining a foothold in the United States by entering illegally.
Mr. Mayorkas said they aren’t “merely” released, but are given dates to appear for their immigration cases.
The problem, he said, is that it can take up to eight years for a case to be completed.
He said a new asylum policy he’s implemented can cut that time to less than a year. But that policy will have to be phased in over time, and it’s not clear how much of a help it can be in the near term.