Washington — The surging number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has posed a "stressful challenge" for the Biden administration, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged Monday, while insisting that thehas not reached a "crisis" level.
"Quite frankly, we are working as hard as we are, not only in addressing the urgency of the challenge, but also in building the capacity to manage it," the newly confirmed secretary said in his debut appearance at the White House press briefing.
U.S. officials along the southern border took roughly 2,000 migrant children into custody last week, according to government data reviewed by CBS News. Nearly 400 children were taken into custody on Friday alone. In January, the last month for which statistics are available, the Office of Refugee Resettlement received more than 4,000 unaccompanied children from immigration officials, a 19% increase from December.
In his remarks, Mayorkas stressed that unaccompanied migrant children will be transferred to the refugee agency, as required by law. But about 97% of the roughly 8,000 beds the refugee office has available for unaccompanied children are currently full, with the agency housing 7,777 minors as of Friday, according to an official from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the refugee agency.
Mayorkas also announced that migrant families who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration will be allowed to reunify either within the United States or their country of origin. The Biden administration has established a task force to identify parents of separated children.
"If in fact they seek to reunite here in the United States, we will explore lawful pathways for them to remain in the United States and to address the family needs, so we are acting as restoratively as possible," Mayorkas said.
Migrant children traveling with their parents to the U.S.-Mexico border were separated beginning in April 2018, after the Trump administration implemented its "zero tolerance" policy, ramping up criminal prosecution of adults entering the country illegally. The policy resulted in the separation of more than 2,800 migrant children from their parents.
As of February 24, immigrant advocates were still trying to locate the parents of 506 children separated at the border, according to a joint status report filed by the Department of Justice and ACLU in federal court. Since January, 105 families separated at the border have been identified, according to the court filing.
According to ACLU lawyers, parents of 322 of the remaining children are believed to have been deported without their children, while the remainder were believed to be living in the U.S. or could not be contacted.
In his briefing Monday, Mayorkas indicated that 105 families separated at the border have been identified "in the recent past."
The decision to allow reunification within the U.S. follows a slew of Friday phone calls between Mayorkas and the foreign ministers of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The secretary announced that Michelle Brané, long-time director at the Women's Refugee Commission, will serve as executive director of the newly formed Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families, and the effort will enlist the help of nongovernmental organizations.
Advocates and lawyers representing the families in federal court have pressured the Biden administration to allow parents and children to reunify inside the U.S., arguing the government has forced parents to make an impossible choice: either bring their children back to dangerous conditions in their home countries, or remain separated indefinitely.
"We applaud Secretary Mayorkas' commitment to remedy the torture and abuse of families who were separated from their children in immigration proceedings," ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement. "Of course, the devil is in the details and Secretary Mayorkas has to shed all the caveats and qualifications around his announcement and follow through with everything that's necessary to right the wrong. At the highest levels of American government, a cruel and unconstitutional family separation practice was authorized."
While the Biden administration has moved quickly to reverse many Trump-era immigration policies, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to enforce a public-health order put in place by former President Donald Trump at the beginning of the pandemic, which officials have used to turn away thousands of migrants, many of whom would otherwise be eligible to apply for asylum or other humanitarian protections.
"We need individuals to wait," Mayorkas told reporters. "The fact of the matter is that families and single adults are indeed being returned due to COVID-19 restrictions."
The secretary argued that asylum-seekers should wait to come to the U.S. until the Biden administration has rebuilt its capacity to process migrants crossing the border.
"We are not saying don't come. We are saying don't come now, because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible," Mayorkas added.
The DHS chief stressed that the administration is not using the pandemic policy to swiftly expel unaccompanied migrant children from U.S. soil without court hearings or asylum screenings. "We are not expelling young children," Mayorkas told reporters.
Mayorkas repeatedly asked for patience as the Biden administration works to build out Homeland Security's capacity to process migrants at the nation's border amid the pandemic. "It is hard and it will take time," Mayorkas added.
"When I started 27 days ago, I learned that we did not have the facilities available or equipped to administer the humanitarian laws that our Congress passed years ago. We did not have the personnel, policies, procedures or training to administer those laws," Mayorkas said. "Quite frankly, the entire system was gutted."
President Biden is meeting virtually Monday with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, as his administration continues efforts to wind down Trump-era policies that effectively sealed the southern border.
Mr. Biden intends to discuss the coronavirus pandemic response, economic cooperation, drug trafficking and climate change with the Mexican leader, the White House said.
Last month, the Biden administration began admitting migrants who had been previously required to wait in Mexico for their immigration court hearings, under Mr. Trump's Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). The program — commonly referred to as the "Remain in Mexico" policy — received the endorsement of Lopez Obrador and ultimately led to more than 70,000 non-Mexican asylum-seekers being sent back to Mexico to await immigration proceedings. While an estimated 25,000 people could be eligible for phase 1 of the process, the number of asylum-seekers admitted during this stage will likely fall short, with many migrants instead returning to their home countries.
Mr. Trump lambasted the Biden administration Sunday for reversing his administration's practices along the border. In a 90-minute speech at a conference for conservative activists, the former president singled out his successor's proposed immigration bill that would establish an eight-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living without permanent legal status in the U.S.