Democrats lashed out at administration officials Thursday, saying there’s no indication that Homeland Security is ready to handle the massive surge of illegal immigrants that experts say is coming.
Two weeks of appearances by Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and other department experts have done little to quell those fears.
“Is the administration prepared?” Sen. Jon Ossoff, Georgia Democrat, demanded of the experts at a hearing of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“We are doing prudent planning, we are using the planning to identify the resource requirements that would be needed,” said Maryann Tierney, the senior official for Homeland Security’s Southwest Border Coordination Center. “We are readying ourselves and we are going to be as ready as we can be.”
To Mr. Ossoff, that sounded like an admission that they’re still struggling.
“My constituents lack confidence that sufficient preparation is ongoing and the administration is prepared,” he said.
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“I would not say we aren’t prepared, I would say we are preparing,” Mr. Tierney replied.
The administration points to a 20-page plan that Mr. Mayorkas released last week, just before his first of five appearances on Capitol Hill, where he laid out a six-point vision for dealing with what could be a record-obliterating surge of people.
His plan includes shifting manpower and resources to the border to better welcome those who show up, trying to speed their processing at the border, looking for ways to slap some of the new arrivals with deportation orders, and trying to goose foreign countries to do more to block people crossing their territory en route to the U.S.
Mr. Mayorkas said the plan has been underway since last fall — which didn’t impress lawmakers who pointed out the border numbers have been steadily worsening this year.
Things are expected to get much worse at the end of this month, when the administration wants to end the Title 42 pandemic border shutdown that had allowed Homeland Security to expel many illegal immigrants.
Of the 2 million or so border jumpers caught since the start of 2021, about half have been expelled under Title 42. Some have turned around and quickly tried again, which Mr. Mayorkas said makes the border numbers seem worse than they actually are.
Mr. Mayorkas has placed blame for the border in many places, including international conditions, a new set of unfriendly nations such as Cuba and Venezuela with large populations reaching the U.S., and a “broken” immigration system here.
Republicans, though, countered that even with those issues, the Trump administration managed to erect a wall of policies that drastically lowered the temperature at the border. They said the Biden administration rushed to dismantle that framework without having a replacement in place, and is now trying to build a new framework on the fly.
Many Democrats defend the Biden administration’s moves, saying the necessity of erasing Trump policies was too critical to delay. They also cheer the end of Title 42, saying the pandemic has improved enough that the country can welcome border crossers and give them chances to claim asylum.
“Lifting a public health order, which is what Title 42 is, would only return us to our existing immigration laws,” said Sen. Alex Padilla, California Democrat.
But the expected surge of illegal immigrants is worrying to other Democrats. Homeland Security is preparing for as many as 18,000 illegal border crossers a day, or triple the current already record-high levels.
“People keep telling me ‘But we have a plan,” and it isn’t clear that having the plan and actually having the resources on the ground to meet the goals of that plan is the same thing,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, New Hampshire Democrat.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona Democrat, said her state will bear the brunt of the upcoming surge, and she demanded more information about the plans.
She pointed to last year, when migrants were caught and released and showed up at Phoenix’s main airport, confounding local officials who struggled to handle them.
Ms. Tierney said they have made great strides to try to speed the illegal immigrants’ time at the airport, which she said should help things. But she said there is “a limit to what we can do.”
“When people are processed out of [Customs and Border Protection] custody the federal government has few levers to actually provide support,” she said.
Ms. Sinema was non-plussed, saying her communities are already struggling. She pointed to one town, Gila Bend, where illegal immigrants were being released on the streets. She said the mayor was actually piling migrants into his own vehicle to shuttle them to Phoenix.
“As of this moment, I do not feel confident that the system is ready for this mass migration that could occur as early as May 23,” Ms. Sinema said.