Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday disclosed that the migration surge at the US-Mexico border is likely the worst the situation has been in 20 years.
Mayorkas, who has refused to call the situation a “crisis,” said in a statement that “[w]e are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”
The statement referred to the surge as a “difficult situation,” but said his department is working to handle it “successfully.”
Mayorkas disclosed new information, including that most unaccompanied minors housed in cramped detention camps have family already in the US.
“In more than 80 percent of cases, the child has a family member in the United States. In more than 40 percent of cases, that family member is a parent or legal guardian. These are children being reunited with their families who will care for them,” Mayorkas said.
In February, about 30 percent of the people illegally crossing the border were under 18. There were 29,792 unaccompanied children detained without their parents — about five times more than in January — of whom 2,942 were under age 12, according to US Customs and Border Protection.
The overall number of people apprehended along the Mexican border increased to more than 100,000 in February, a 28 percent increase from January.
Mayorkas said that the Biden administration plans to create a faster-working asylum processing system that “will shorten from years to months the time it takes to adjudicate an asylum claim” and to streamline the above-board reunification of children from Central America with parents already in the US.
He said, however, that with the exception of unaccompanied children and some families, most migrants are being immediately deported under COVID-19 policies first adopted under former President Donald Trump.
“The majority of those apprehended at the southwest border are single adults who are currently being expelled under the CDC’s authority to manage the public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mayorkas added.
“Pursuant to that authority under Title 42 of the United States Code, single adults from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are swiftly expelled to Mexico. Single adults from other countries are expelled by plane to their countries of origin if Mexico does not accept them.”
Mayorkas said that the “expulsion of single adults does not pose an operational challenge for the Border Patrol because of the speed and minimal processing burden of their expulsion.”
He said that the Biden administration is also “working with Mexico to increase its capacity to receive expelled families,” who are only expelled to Mexico if there’s enough room to house them there.
Biden administration officials have struggled with messaging on its immigration stance. Mayorkas previously said that “loving parents” are sending 9-year-old children alone on the treacherous trip.
In his new statement, Cuba-born Mayorkas said, “I came to this country as an infant, brought by parents who understood the hope and promise of America. Today, young children are arriving at our border with that same hope. We can do this.”
Coordinator for the southern border Roberta Jacobson conceded at a White House press briefing last week that the administration’s messaging is fueling the crisis.
“When you look at the issue of mixed messages, it is difficult at times to convey both hope in the future and the danger that is now,” Jacobson said.
“We’ve seen surges before. Surges tend to respond to hope,” she said. “There was a significant hope for a more humane policy after four years of pent-up demand.
Last month, Biden terminated Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy that required Central American asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while US courts reviewed their claims. But new Central American migrants aren’t yet welcome without an appointment.
Biden halted construction of his predecessor’s Mexico border wall and issued an order affirming the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives work permits and protection from deportation to people brought illegally to the US as minors
Biden also proposed legislation to create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US. House Democrats plan votes this week on bills to offer legal status to farm workers who currently lack government permission to work and to allow a path to citizenship to people brought illegally to the US as children.