Washington — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday defended the Biden administration's handling of the surge of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, telling lawmakers that the government is working to expand its capacity to handle the influx of minors.
Mayorkas testified before the House Homeland Security Committee in his first hearing as the head of overseeing the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, which is charged with managing some of the nation's most urgent challenges.
Chief among them is a historic number of migrants who are crossing into the United States and creating an overwhelming need for more humanitarian assistance. More than 13,000 unaccompanied migrant children are now in U.S. custody, sources tell CBS News.
In the four-hour hearing, Mayorkas explained the Biden administration's decision to allow children who arrive without a parent or legal guardian to make their asylum claims in the U.S., rather than expel them under a public health order invoked by the Trump administration.
"Their families made the heart-wrenching decision to send them on a journey across Mexico, to provide them with a better, safer future," the secretary's remarks read. "The previous administration was expelling these unaccompanied children — some who are girls under the age of 12, for example — back to Mexico. We ended that practice."
The Biden administration has continued the Trump-era policy of using the public health law to quickly expel most single migrant adults and families from the southern border, but shielded unaccompanied children from the expulsions.
GOP lawmakers blamed the Biden administration's policies for the surge in migrant children arriving at the border, accusing President Biden of inviting them to make the treacherous journey by repealing many of former President Donald Trump's policies.
Republican Representative John Katko, the ranking member of the committee who traveled with his GOP colleagues to the border earlier this week, criticized the Biden administration's words and actions for precipitating the surge.
"I can tell you without hesitation it is indeed a crisis that continues to deepen each and every day," said Katko. "I am very concerned the administration's rhetoric and policies are encouraging more to make this dangerous journey."
Pressed by GOP lawmakers on whether the situation amounted to a crisis, Mayorkas declined to characterize it as such. "I'm not spending any time on the language that we use," he said.
"If we want to speak of language, I will share with you how I define a crisis," Mayorkas later added. "A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a 9-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter migration. That to me is a humanitarian crisis."
Mayorkas said he and the president are committed "to ensure that we have an immigration system that works, and that migration to our country is safe, orderly and humane."
Under the law, unaccompanied migrants who are taken into custody along the border must be transferred within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is responsible for sheltering the children until they can be released to a sponsor in the U.S. As of Sunday, more than 3,000 unaccompanied minors were being held by border officials beyond the legal limit, according to government records reviewed by CBS News, with children spending an average of 120 hours in Border Patrol facilities due to a shortage in space to house them.
Lawmakers, including some from the president's own party, have grown frustrated by the logistical challenges along the southwest border, as officials race to stand up temporary housing for unaccompanied migrant children. The U.S. government plans to use a downtown convention center in Dallas, a former camp for oil field workers in Midland, Texas, and a California NASA facility to help house unaccompanied migrant children.
House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy led the delegation of Republican lawmakers to the U.S.-Mexico border on Monday, slamming Mr. Biden for what McCarthy called the "Biden border crisis."
For his part, Mr. Biden said during an interview with ABC News on Tuesday that his administration could have enough space to shelter unaccompanied minors stuck in border facilities by next month. But his message to migrants and those considering the treacherous journey to the U.S. border was stark: "I can say quite clearly: Don't come over," Mr. Biden said. "Don't leave your town or city or community."
In addition to the escalating crisis on the Southwest border, the DHS secretary also faced questions on a series of intersecting challenges facing his department: COVID-19 vaccine distribution spearheaded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the threat of domestic terrorism in the wake of the January 6 Capitol attack and back-to-back cyberattacks, including a massive breach of Microsoft Exchange server.
In his opening remarks, Mayorkas said that "ideologically motivated domestic violent extremism" is the "most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to the homeland today." He said the January 6 attack on the Capitol was "a searing example" of the threat from domestic extremism.
Mayorkas also informed lawmakers he had been briefed on the shootings that left eight people dead in Atlanta-area spas on Tuesday. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of that tragic event, those who lost their lives as well as those who were injured," Mayorkas says. "We are tracking that event very carefully."
Mayorkas' testimony came as the Biden administration works to accelerate the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations, particularly among marginalized and minority communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Acting FEMA Administrator Robert Fenton was grilled on the agency's efforts to equitably distribute the vaccine to at-risk ZIP codes on Tuesday, as racial disparities in vaccine access persist, especially among Black and Latino Americans.
Mayorkas said FEMA has established more than 900 community vaccination centers as part of the administration's efforts to accelerate the pace of vaccinations, and noted that FEMA is reimbursing state and local authorities for 100% of the cost of administering testing programs.
While the DHS Secretary took center stage Wednesday, the Biden administration hopes the Senate will confirm Xavier Becerra as secretary of health and human services and begin to fill out key staff to spearhead housing efforts for minors.
Mr. Mayorkas is the sole Senate-confirmed leader at the helm of DHS. All departments under the agency's charge – including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CBP and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services – are currently led by career officials operating in an acting capacity.
Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed to this report.