Portman Presses DHS Secretary Mayorkas on Southern Border Catastrophe

WASHINGTON, DC –  This afternoon, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, pressed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Mayorkas about the unprecedented crisis at the southern border. Last month, the administration announced its intent to lift Title 42. Title 42 is public health order put in place to allow border authorities to turn unlawful immigrants away due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Currently about half of the unlawful immigrants who attempt to enter our country are turned away using Title 42. Portman pressed Secretary Mayorkas on how lifting Title 42 without an adequate plan to deter unlawful immigrants once the order is lifted will lead the current border crisis to catastrophe. During Portman’s questioning of Mayorkas, the Secretary refused to commit to reimplementing effective policies like enhanced technology along the southern border, migrant protection protocols also known as the Remain in Mexico policy, and quick asylum adjudication at the border.

In addition, Portman expressed his frustration on the lack of proper screening and vetting for Afghan evacuees after the administration’s chaotic evacuation as well the need to improve the intelligence and information sharing between other countries with regard to high-risk individuals coming into the United States.

A transcript of Portman’s questioning can be found below and videos can be found here and here.

 

Portman: “Mr. Secretary, over the past year, about a million people have come into our country through the southern border unlawfully, coming to the border and then being allowed into the country. Most of them have claims under the asylum system, a system where at the end of the process, once their claims are adjudicated, more than 80 percent are denied. This year, DHS is expecting 1.5 to two million people to come to our border unlawfully. You've been using Title 42 to turn back about another one million people. So clearly not having Title 42 is going to lead to a lot more folks coming to the border unlawfully and being allowed into the country. 

“On Fox News Sunday this past week, I was watching you. You said that asylum seekers, ‘Make their claims under the law. If those claims do not prevail, they are promptly removed from the United States.’ According to information we've received, about 1.2 million unlawful migrants have been issued a final order of removal. Those are people who go through the asylum process and their claims are adjudicated and they are denied. You only deported 59,000 people last year. That would be the lowest percentage in the history of the country. With these numbers, how can you say that asylum seekers whose claims are denied are, ‘promptly removed’ from the United States?” 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas: “Ranking Member Portman, thank you very much. That 59,000 figure is not the figure that I have, but I will drill down on that.” 

Portman: “Do you know what figure you have?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Yes, I do. I believe it is over 74,000.” 

Portman: “74,000 under the Obama years.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Forgive me, Ranking Member Portman, you are correct. That is the number of arrests. We removed 59,011 people in Fiscal Year 2021, my apologies.” 

Portman: “Okay, out of 1.2 million unlawful migrants that have been issued a final order of removal.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “If I can, let me first focus on the 59,000 figure because our focus has been on individuals who pose the greatest threat to our public safety in the execution of smart and effective law enforcement. 46 percent of the ICE removals were for people convicted of felonies or aggravated felonies, compared to 18 percent during the previous four years and 17 percent the year before that. So our focus first and foremost in execution of our security mission is the removal of people that pose the greatest public safety threat.” 

Portman: “I understand that. I understand that, and you are deporting a lot fewer people, and so you're focusing on those who have criminal records, and therefore, your percentage of those will be higher. You were in the Obama administration. I worked with you then, you were Deputy Secretary. Your deportation numbers are 80 percent lower than they were under the Obama/Biden administration. Forget the Trump administration. The Obama/Biden administration. DHS was deporting about 350,000 unlawful migrants each year on average, as you know, because you were there.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “There's an important fact to explain that distinction, and that is the implementation of Title 42, which does not account for a removal. Under Title 42, we have used Title 42 to expel, I believe, more than 50 percent of the people we encounter.” 

Portman: “It’s about 55 percent, that’s correct, but I'm talking about the people who come into the country. Remember, we're at record levels of people who are allowed into the country primarily because they have made a claim under asylum. For Central America and Mexico only 15 percent of those will ultimately be allowed to stay in the country under that adjudication but they tend to stay because you're not deporting them and you're not doing what you said on Fox News, which is that if their claims do not prevail, they are promptly removed from the United States. It's just not what's happening. I mean, we can argue whether that's right or wrong, but I think the American people deserve to know, don't you, that we are not removing people at this point?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Well, we are removing people as quickly as we can and focus…” 

Portman: “Well 59,000 is about three or four percent.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “If I may have a Ranking Member Portman, a few thoughts. First, we are working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, specifically enforcement and removal operations, to increase the number of removals that we're able to effectuate. We are seeing now an increasing number of individuals from countries of origin to which we have difficulty removing them. For example, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua. We are seeing more than 1,200 Cubans each day because of the oppression of the authoritarian regime in Cuba. And I believe that there are members of the United States Senate that would not endorse our removal of Cubans back to Cuba.” 

Portman: “Mr. Secretary, let me continue, because my time is about to expire.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “So it’s a very complex…” 

Portman: “Well of course it’s complex but the vast majority of people are talking about do not come from Cuba or Venezuela." 

Secretary Mayorkas: “No.” 

Portman: “Or any other country where they cannot be returned. So I'll give you a chance here. Would you like to change your assertion that asylum seekers who do not prevail are promptly removed from the United States?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “No, we're doing that to the fullest extent that we can.” 

Portman: “Well, you're not doing it to the fullest extent you can. And you know that 59,000 people, three or four percent back in the Obama administration, you were doing 350,000 on average per year. So it's just not accurate. I'm trying to help you here to be able to clarify the record, because the American people, when they listen to us saying everybody who comes in goes through an adjudication process, if they don't get asylum, they're promptly removed. It's just not accurate. Now, you can argue that that's the way it should be for policy reasons, for whatever reasons you or the administration might have. But it's not accurate to mislead the American people.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “It is not my position that that's the way it should be. We should remove individuals who have made their claims.” 

Portman: “Okay. Now we're making progress. You believe we should not be doing what we're doing. In fact, we should be removing more people who did not qualify?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “We should be able to remove individuals who have made a claim for relief, who have had that claim heard by an immigration court and the immigration court denied that claim. Those individuals do not have a legal basis to remain in the United States and therefore should not be permitted to do so.” 

Portman: “But you and the administration have a policy not to do that, that’s the point.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Ranking Member Portman, that is precisely why we promulgated the asylum officer rule to more expeditiously be able to remove individuals.” 

Portman: “Well, we can talk about that later but the asylum officer rule says that you are at the border get a quick adjudication. But if the adjudication is that you do not qualify because you're an economic refugee, which we understand a lot of people want to come here for economic reasons. I probably would too if I was one of those fathers. But those people are then allowed to appeal that decision to the regular immigration court judge. So we're right back into the backlog, which is unfortunate. Well, we'll have an opportunity for our second round to talk more about this, but I'm glad to hear you say that you think we ought to be actually following the law and removing people who do not qualify and I look forward to working with you to make that actually happen.” 

 

Portman: “Thank you, Madam Chair. Thank you, Secretary, for your patience with us today. There's so many important issues. One is these 42 individuals who were found recently to who have come up to the border, who are on the terrorist watch list. This is a shock to all of us, and I think to your people as well. But part of the problem of having a border that is so open is that people are coming in from all over the world, including these 42 individuals. Can you tell the Committee if any of these 42 individuals on the terrorists watch list were actually released into the United States?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “So, Senator, there are a number of dispositions those individuals I would want to provide information with respect to the disposition of the 42 individuals which we know of in a classified setting.” 

Portman: “So you're saying you can't tell us today whether any of them were released into the United States?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Well, some of them very well might have been US persons." 

Portman: Well, were they released into the United States? That's the question.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “I cannot tell you the precise disposition, but I can share that with you. We do know.” 

Portman: “Okay. So you want to do it in a classified setting. You said in response to your question at the House last week that you would provide that information." 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Yes, if I may, Senator, we know of the disposition of the individuals. Some may be placed in removal proceedings, some may be placed in criminal custody, some may be cooperating with law enforcement, some may be downgraded from the terrorist group.” 

Portman: “Okay. I hear what you're saying. You're not going to give us information unless we can do it in a classified setting. We'll do it in a classified setting.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Well, that information with respect to the disposition of particularly…” 

Portman: “Well some of these individuals you say may have been released in the United States. You won't tell us that information.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “If I may just finish.” 

Portman: “Okay. I'd like to go on the next because you're not going to tell us the answer to that question. And I understand you said you won't.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “No. If I can provide that information to you outside of a classified setting, I certainly will. I will do both.” 

Portman: Okay. Well, I look forward to getting that information. I think it's incredibly important that we know who's coming into our country and whether they've been screened or not. We just heard recently from the DoD Inspector General that there were 50 individuals with significant security concerns who were paroled in the United States through the Afghan parolee program. And this was a shock to everybody. You testified last year that you were robustly screening the Afghan refugees, and you and other DHS officials assured us on several occasions, including in some member briefings. What we know now is that the DoD tactical databases were not used. That's information that's collected that details military operations, combat operations, detention records, have fingerprints on improvised explosive devices and so on. The fact that at least 50 individuals with serious security concerns were discovered was only because DoD ran that database after the fact from the people who had already come into the United States. Earlier today, we were briefed by DHS that you guys either did not ask for or did not have access to that tactical database to conduct the screening. And my question to you is, can you assure us today that you are indeed screening people at the southern border using these tactical databases that DoD says are necessary to determine whether someone is a potential terrorist?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Senator, Ranking Member Portman, let me share with you that we were not consulted by the Inspector General of the Department of Defense before the publication of that report. We consider there to be infirmities in that report, factual inaccuracies, and we are continuing to review the report to identify all of them. And I look forward to following up with you in response to your specific question.” 

Portman: Do you disagree that there are 50 people who were released into the country as Afghan evacuees who have security issues?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “I know that there are a number of factual inaccuracies in that report.” 

Portman: “Okay. That's the first I've heard of that. So we'll follow up on that. Quickly. Yes or no questions. We've talked a lot today about what can be done. You said we need to change immigration policy, that it's not the administration's fault. Others have said, well, look, in the Trump years, we had virtually a secure border, and now we don't. Someone can put up that chart behind me. So I'm going to ask you these questions, whether you’re for or against it. Just say yes or no. That's all we have time for. One, a commitment to finish the wall and the technology that goes with it, which I think is more important even than the wall and to properly fund the Border Patrol. Yes or no?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “No. The commitment of this administration is not to continue to build the wall.” 

Portman: Okay. So that's a no I have. So that's one thing that has changed. Return to say third country asylum program, where you tell people that they can apply for asylum from, say, Guatemala if they're from El Salvador. Yes or no? That program was in place for Guatemala, not other countries. But the plan was to do it in other countries.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Senator, I would respectfully submit that Guatemala is not a safe third country given the conditions in that country and the amount of migration that we see from that country.” 

Portman: “I'm talking to people coming from a third country to Guatemala applying for asylum in Guatemala.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Correct. And what I'm saying is it is respectfully my opinion that Guatemala is not a safe qualifying third country.” 

Portman: Okay. So no on that one too. Okay. How about a return to the migrant protection protocols? In other words, if somebody is being adjudicated under the asylum, they have to wait in Mexico until the adjudication is complete. You started that with a very small number of people screening most people. Would you actually put that program back in place in a robust way? Yes or no?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Senator, I have articulated quite comprehensively in a memorandum that we believe that that policy should not be in place.” 

Portman: “Okay. So that's a no too. How about stopping the release of people into the United States? In other words, the so it's called catch and release program without detaining them.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “I disagree with the formulation of that question.” 

Portman: Okay, so you're saying you would not follow the law and detain people, you would have them go to the United States. I understand we don't have the best now, but it would take a lot of funding, a lot of help.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Ranking Member Portman, that is a mischaracterization of what I said. We enforce the law. Individuals who are subject to detention are detained to the fullest extent of our capacity to detain them.” 

Portman: Under Title 8, people are supposed to be detained pending the adjudication.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “But Ranking Member Portman there has never been enough detention capacity.” 

Portman: “I get that. I'm just saying yes or no. Would that be a good idea and you're saying there's not the capacity to do it or that you would not want to do it?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “That will not solve the challenge of mine.” 

Portman: How about asylum? The last in, first out idea, final adjudication at the border, spend the money. Have the asylum adjudication happen right away. So when someone comes into the country, they're adjudicated, within a month or two, they go back to their country. The people back home are thinking, my gosh, maybe it's not worth coming to the United States because you aren't getting into the United States for six to eight years on average, which is the average you've told me with 1.6 million backlog of people waiting for adjudication.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “That's precisely why we promulgated the asylum officer rule to bring greater efficiency.” 

Portman: “So you would be for that. But would you before making a final adjudication at the border? Because that policy, as you and I know we've talked about it, it can be appealed to an immigration judge after the asylum officer. So it just is another bump in the road. But it doesn't solve the issue. Obviously.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Senator, I would need to know more details about that because I will tell you doing border patrol facilities are not equipped to address.” 

Portman: “But we'd have to spend the money. We have to spend the money on the adjudications. But you said that that's one you could consider.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “That is something that I would consider.” 

Portman: We’re getting somewhere. How about expedited removal? We talked about the fact you're down to about three or four percent and back in your days in the Obama administration, you are removing a lot more people.” 

Secretary Mayorkas: “Senator, that is the use of expedited removal is actually one of the elements of our six part plan. I believe it's border security pillar three. The consequence regime that we would ring to bear.” 

Portman: But 59,000 now, 350,000 in the Obama years would you go back to a policy where you're actually removing people who don't qualify? Who haven't had a full adjudication?” 

Secretary Mayorkas: Yes.” 

Portman: That's a yes. Okay. We made some progress. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.” 

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