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Transcript: CBS News interviews Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas

The following is a transcript of an April 22 interview with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who told CBS News his department is ready to implement a major policy change along the U.S.-Mexico border in May. The transcript was slightly edited for clarity.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ, CBS NEWS: I'll jump right in. Secretary, you were recently in Panama to discuss migration and the administration's regional approach to this issue. What exactly, secretary, are you asking Panama and other countries in our hemisphere to do differently to help the U.S. manage these, frankly, unprecedented levels of displacement and migration?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: I think it's very important to recognize that the challenge of migration, an increased level of migration, is not unique to the United States. It is something that countries throughout our region are experiencing. And I think that's very powerfully demonstrated, for example, in the number of Venezuelans resident now in Colombia; the number of Nicaraguans resident now in Costa Rica. And therefore, addressing a regional challenge requires a regional response. And what we are asking, and it's not just the United States asking other countries, but all countries asking of one another. And that is one of the things that was quite evident. This is not a United States ask of other countries. This is countries asking of each other. A collaborative, harmonized approach to increasing migration throughout the region.

And we discussed the different elements of that response. We spoke of the responsibility to manage borders throughout the region in a humanitarian way that follows the law, which means that those who qualify for relief in a particular country are granted that relief and those who don't are repatriated. For those who are granted relief, to develop stabilization efforts so that they have the ability to work and integrate in the communities. The repatriation efforts should be accomplished in a way that allows people a safe return to the countries from which they originated. We spoke of the development of safe and legal pathways so that individuals, for example, seeking relief do not need to pass through the very treacherous Darién region, which I saw firsthand in my visit to Panama. And we spoke of a collaboration on repatriation efforts. And then, of course, fundamentally, and this is why the broad participation was so instrumental, we have the development banks, the international development banks, present there. That we have to also take on an enduring solution. And that is addressing the reason, the underlying reasons, why people leave their homes, their countries of origin, only to travel to other countries with which they are unfamiliar. And so we covered quite an expanse of subjects that are involved in the complexities of regional migration.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: You just mentioned that in your view, migrants who don't qualify for relief under U.S. law should be returned in a humane fashion. That's not always the case, as you know, including because of the inability to return people to some countries like Cuba and Nicaragua. So does this regional strategy also involve, Secretary, asking and convincing these countries to accept the return of their citizens if they don't qualify for asylum here in the U.S.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: That does. I think that is, Camilo, challenging. For example, it's quite challenging in dealing with a country like Venezuela, where the diplomatic relations, if they exist at all, can be strained. And so we have to be practical here in addressing the realities.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: But you are trying to establish some sort of dialogue with these countries like Cuba and Nicaragua and Venezuela to see if they can take some of their nationals back who again don't qualify for (relief under) our laws. And I ask this because as you know, Secretary, Cuba last month became the second largest source of migration to the border.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: Yeah, so Camilo, this is why the regional migration talks were so important in Panama, because it is not something that we can do alone. And if we don't have the relationship with another country that will enable that constructive dialogue then perhaps other countries can participate in the solution. And so that's why a regional approach is so vital, and as I know you are well aware, yesterday we had discussions with Cuba to begin a dialogue on the migration accords, a process that has indeed historically provided an orderly and safe pathway for a certain number of Cubans to obtain relief in the United States.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: And also their commitment to accept the return of their citizens as well, right? That was another part. 

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: An element of the discussion.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: I would be remiss, Secretary if I did not ask you about the planned termination of Title 42. I understand it is a CDC decision. But there's a growing number of lawmakers and frankly, everyday Americans, who do not feel that your department, Secretary, is ready to implement this change. Can you assure them that they will not see dangerous overcrowding in border facilities, that asylum-seekers will be processed efficiently and that you will be able to manage these already very high levels of migration once this policy is terminated on May 23?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: Camilo, the assertion that we do not have plans is an assertion that is not grounded in fact. We have been planning for months to address increases in migration; those that we already have experienced and those that we might experience upon an end to Title 42. And proof of that is the fact that we've deployed additional resources to the border in anticipation of an end to Title 42. The surging of personnel, transportation, medical resources, the development of additional facilities to support border operations. These plans have been in the works for months. And so, we do indeed have plans and I can assure the American people and their representatives that we do indeed.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: And you feel confident, Secretary, that you will be able to implement this change come May 23.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: We are confident that we can implement our plans when they are needed. And we are also very aware of the fact, Camilo, that we are planning for different scenarios. And certain of those scenarios present significant challenges for us. There is a fundamental point, Camilo, that is so important to communicate every single time that we speak of these challenges, and that is that we are operating within the confines of a system that is entirely broken, and that is long overdue for legislative fix.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: In that vein, Secretary, will you be turning to Congress to ask for either legal authorities to be changed or for more funding to help you address these challenges?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: We are currently working within the funding that we have been provided, Camilo, but yes, I will continue to ask that legislative reform be implemented. There is unanimity of view that it is needed. And President Biden proposed on its first day in office a legislative package to fix what everyone agrees is a system broken in its entirety.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Secretary, if you're someone right now in Haiti, Colombia, Nicaragua, other countries in our hemisphere, and you're thinking about migrating to the U.S. border after May 23, after Title 42 is lifted, because there is a belief that they will be able to stay here. Is that belief accurate, inaccurate?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: That belief is inaccurate. And Camilo, we have seen individuals undertake the perilous journey, we have seen them take that journey by sea, and we have seen the fatal or dire consequences of that. I visited the Darién, an extraordinarily treacherous terrain, and learned firsthand the dire consequences of that undertaking. We are dedicated to building safe, orderly and humane pathways. Those individuals who do not qualify for relief in the United States will be returned. 

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Okay. Last question, if I may. In March, Secretary, your department recorded 221,000 apprehensions along the southwest border, a 22-year high. Obviously that number is inflated by a very high rate of recidivism among, specially single adults. What sort of numbers are you seeing now in April, Secretary? And again, I want to ask you the question, if you believe that you will be able to manage some of the projections that the agency has laid out when Title 42 is lifted?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: Camilo, I think you identify a very important point that needs to be underscored, which is these are the number of encounters, they are not the number of unique individuals encountered at the border. And we are going to continue to adhere to the laws that guide us. And that includes the laws of humanitarian relief and the laws of removal that compel removal when one does not qualify.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: How do you reduce that? Sorry to interrupt you, Secretary, how do you reduce that recidivism rate that is very high right now. And that is inflating these numbers significantly?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: That is in the context of, Camilo, you're asking in the context of Title 42?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Why many adults are trying to cross multiple times.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: So we are addressing that within our enforcement regime, Camilo. And those individuals who make repeated attempts, who seek to defy the law, are subject to criminal prosecution in appropriate circumstances. And we're working in collaboration with the Department of Justice to do that.

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