Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas unloaded on immigrant-rights activists Thursday, rejecting their suggestions that he has embraced Trump-style get-tough policies and saying he’s managing as best he can with a chaotic border, adversarial court rulings and a “dismantled” legal immigration system.
He said he’s working with too little money, and that too many illegal immigrants are coming. They’re being pushed by cartels that spread a “trail of death and tragedy.”
Mr. Mayorkas said he’s making the best decisions possible within those constraints, and pleaded with advocates to understand the realities he’s facing at the border.
“We will encounter 8,000 people a day. We’re resourced for a fraction of that,” he said. “What do we do?”
He delivered his challenge to Ahilan Arulanantham, a professor at the UCLA School of Law who was interviewing Mr. Mayorkas at a Fordham Law Review conference on immigration. But Mr. Mayorkas’s words seemed intended for a broader audience of critics on the left who have accused him, and the president, of abandoning their more lenient policies.
“This is about governing. It is about taking one’s ideals, taking one’s ambitions and seeking to realize those ideals and meeting the moment, the reality that we confront,” he said. “So what do you propose? How do you propose we handle 8,000 people each day when we are not resourced for that?”
Mr. Arulanantham suggested he shift money around.
“Where do I take the money from?” the secretary countered. “Do I take it from our efforts to secure the cybersecurity of our country? Do I take it from the Transportation Security Administration?”
His complaint about money came the same day Mr. Biden revealed his new budget, which includes new money to welcome and process illegal immigrants and money to hire 350 more Border Patrol agents.
Analysts doubted the new budget can make a dent in the record numbers of people who’ve jumped the border over the last year, saying that’s more an issue of policy changes than resources.
A federal judge in Florida echoed that evaluation in a ruling Wednesday. Judge T. Kent Wetherell said the Biden administration’s policies are “akin to posting a flashing ‘Come In, We’re Open’ sign on the southern border.”
Mr. Mayorkas declined to criticize the ruling, and said he’ll abide by it.
“I’m not going to violate the court order,” he said.
Since taking office, Mr. Mayorkas has been a top target for conservatives who say he has opened the border to lawless chaos. But now he’s also taking vicious jabs from his left, where activists and lawmakers say they see a dangerous drift back to the policies of former President Donald Trump.
That particularly rankled Mr. Mayorkas on Thursday.
He said his new proposal to raise the bar for making asylum requests for those who jump the border is a far cry from the Trump administration’s policy, which effectively barred claims from people who traversed Mexico to reach the U.S.
“This is not a ban on asylum,” Mr. Mayorkas said. “President Trump issued a transit ban. This is not a ban on asylum.”
The secretary also said he’s opened many new options to protect people already here from deportation, and to channel the illegal flow across the border into potentially legal methods of entry.
He said a new policy giving special entry permission to people from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba is welcoming 740 people a day, while reducing illegal crossings of citizens of those countries by 95%.
Mr. Mayorkas also pointed to his move to revoke the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule that penalized legal migrants who ended up using welfare programs like Medicaid, his attempt to put the DACA program for illegal immigrant “Dreamers” on firmer footing, and his success in reuniting hundreds of children with parents after they were separated under Mr. Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy.
He declined to elaborate on reports that his administration is considering reviving detention facilities for families — something he oversaw when he was deputy secretary in the Obama administration, and that was continued by the Trump administration, but which he phased out in 2021.
The possibility of restarting family detention brought a cascade of criticism from the political left.
The Congressional Black Caucus labeled it “unconscionable” and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said it risked doing “long term damage to children.”
“No decision has been made,” Mr. Mayorkas said, casting the reports as a free-wheeling discussion of ideas that may not come to fruition.
But he did demand credit from critics for efforts to protect illegal immigrants from raids on businesses, and bragged that few illegal immigrant children — including those ordered deported by judges — are actually being removed.
Mr. Arulanantham said some of those children are being ordered deported in absentia, meaning they missed their court dates. He said that was unfair, particularly because those children generally didn’t have lawyers.
Because immigration courts are a civil system, and the outcome is deportation rather than incarceration, there is no automatic right to legal counsel.
Mr. Mayorkas asked Mr. Arulanantham what solution the activists would suggest. When Mr. Arulanantham said someone should go out and find the kids to get them to come to court, Mr. Mayorkas pointed out that the immigrant-rights community has recoiled at having federal immigration officers go into communities at large.
“Whom should we deploy to try to find that child? Because that undertaking isn’t always met with a great embrace,” the secretary said.
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