Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border Friday with a bipartisan group of lawmakers as an influx of migrants seek asylum, creating a backlog of unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody.
Mayorkas was joined by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Gary Peters and ranking member Rob Portman, as well as the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Homeland Security, Democrat Chris Murphy, and ranking member Shelley Moore Capito.
The group traveled to El Paso, Texas, visiting the Paso del Norte International Crossing, "where they were provided with an overview of Port of Entry enforcement activities and a briefing on the wind down of the Migrant Protection Protocols," according to a readout of the trip from the Department of Homeland Security. They also visited the newly constructed Centralized Processing Center where unaccompanied minors and families are initially sheltered after crossing the border, and toured the CHS Trail House Shelter, an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility providing care for children before they're placed with family members or a sponsor.
Roughly 4,500 unaccompanied migrant children were being held in short-term Custom and Border Protection (CBP) facilities along the southern border as of Thursday, according to a Biden administration official. The backlog of migrant children in Border Patrol custody has steadily increased over the past week.
The number of unaccompanied migrant children housed by the U.S. Refugee Office within the Department of Health and Human Services has also spiked. As of Wednesday, more than 9,500 unaccompanied children remained in shelters and emergency housing facilities overseen by the refugee agency.
In a series of tweets on Friday evening, Murphy defended the Biden administration's handling of the crisis, saying "they have a ton of work ahead to clean up the mess Trump left them, but their intentions are true." He spoke about meeting with children who had crossed the border alone.
"The desperation these kids and families are fleeing is hard to describe," Murphy wrote. "So long as conditions are abysmal in places south, people will find a way to get here, no matter how high the wall is or how many border agents."
He also criticized the construction of the border wall, much of which was built under former President Donald Trump's administration.
"Seeing the wall in person is unexpectedly devastating. How did it come to this, that a country defined by our warm embrace of immigrants now must be defined by our irrational fear of them? We must be better," Murphy said. Mr. Bidenon his first day in office ending the national emergency declaration cited by the Trump administration to divert money to the building of the southern wall.
But in his own statement, Portman argued that the influx of unaccompanied minors was due to the Biden administration's "dismantling of the previous administration's policies with no consideration of the ramifications."
"The crisis at our southern border is clear, and I urge the Biden administration to provide Border Patrol with the resources they need while stepping up efforts to collaborate with international partners - including the governments in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador - to address this challenge, discourage migration, and provide safer alternatives to making the dangerous journey north," Portman said.
The visit came after Mayorkas on Wednesday defended the Biden administration's handling of the surge of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and its decision to allow children who arrive without a parent or legal guardian to make their asylum claims in the U.S., a departure from Trump administration policy.
"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 said. "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.
According to witness accounts, many unaccompanied minors at CBP processing facilities face overcrowded conditions, with some held for as long as seven days, despite the legal limit of 72 hours.
Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed to this report.
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