WASHINGTON – Alejandro N. Mayorkas opened a 2016 speech on immigration by recounting his personal connection to the subject – his story of being a political refugee. Then it only took a few minutes for Mr Mayorkas, the then Under-Secretary for Homeland Security, to respond to criticism of his ministry’s immigration case.
“Many have been very unhappy with the administration’s removal of people who have not qualified for refugee status or asylum status in the United States and our practice of removing those who do not qualify for asylum. reparation under the law, ”Mayorkas said during his address to Georgetown Law. “Whether we broaden the base on which we seek to welcome these fleeing people for a better life is a question answered by thinking about who we want to be as a country.”
His remarks not only highlighted some of the experiences that prompted President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to appoint him homeland security secretary last month – fleeing Cuba during the Castro revolution to the United States, where he became American prosecutor for the South. California – but they also heralded one of the first dilemmas he’s likely to face as head of the department.
There are early indicators that migration will swell at the southwest border, presenting the Biden administration with a first test of the human consequences. In November, border officials apprehended a child crossing the border alone 4,467 times. That’s a slight drop from the 4,661 in October, but a marked increase from the 712 recorded in April, when various countries imposed national lockdowns and the Trump administration invoked a public health emergency rule for put in place new border restrictions.
Almost all of the 70,052 border arrests in November involved an adult migrating alone, who border officials can still quickly repatriate to Mexico under public health rules. But immigration experts pointed to two recent hurricanes that devastated Central America as well as the pandemic’s damage to the economy by warning that the United States in the coming months will most likely be faced with the question of what to do with parents and children crossing the southwest border. in search of protection.
The new administration’s approach to the issue is expected to balance left-wing demands for more lenient immigration policies with concerns from moderates and law enforcement officials who believe any display of tolerance could lead to an increase. illegal migration.
“On the one hand, they are under pressure from the right to just grant amnesty and let in all those illegals and from the left that you are too hard on,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said. under President Barack Obama. . “And the challenge is to uphold the rule of law and to do it intelligently.”
The Trump administration has sought to restrict the possibility of obtaining asylum through a myriad of regulations and policies, including one that requires migrants to wait in Mexico for decisions in their case rather than being released. in the USA.
The United States also cited the public health authority given to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to empower border officials to promptly “deport” migrants at the border to Mexico or their country of origin without hearing their demands. asylum. This policy has had the unintended consequence of encouraging migrants to cross the border illegally on several occasions.
In November, a federal judge blocked the administration from applying the rule to migrant children at the border, a move that officials in the outgoing Trump administration say will fuel northward migration.
Although Mr Biden has not said whether he will lift public health restrictions, he has said he will end the “stay in Mexico” policy that has forced tens of thousands of migrants to cross the border .
“Most transitions go off right away without incident. However, as far as immigration is concerned, it could be different, ”Mark Morgan, acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told reporters on Monday. “If they do what they say they’re going to do, you’re going to have a full blown crisis. I hope they don’t do what they say they are going to do.
In October and November, the border patrol detained around 150 migrant children a day at the southwest border, up from around 80 a day in the fiscal year that ended on October 1, the agency said. The more than 4,600 detentions of children at the border in November are still less than the 5,615 arrests recorded in 2016.
Mr Biden said he will cut funding used to detain migrants and instead rely on programs that follow them after they are released in the United States to ensure they appear in court. Its immigration-focused transition team has discussed in recent weeks the upsurge in asylum officers at the border to handle more cases, as well as lobbying Congress for additional bed capacity at the Office of Relocation of refugees from the Department of Health and Social Services, according to interviews with counselors.
The presidential transition
Once children are detained at the border, they are required by law to be transferred to shelters managed by the department within 72 hours. They are then supposed to be matched with parents acting as sponsors or placed in foster care. The refugee office has around 3,300 children in its care out of around 8,700 places that were made available during the pandemic, according to a statement from the agency.
Both the Trump and Obama administrations have been criticized for caring for children in border facilities and for the time it took to transfer them to health and social services.
In 2014, the population at the border shifted from single Mexican adults, who can be quickly deported, to Central American families and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. By law, these families cannot be expelled quickly because they did not travel from a neighboring country.
The Obama administration has responded by increasing the number of family detention centers, converting a warehouse in McAllen, Texas, into a facility that can accommodate more than 1,000 migrants in chain pens. Mr Mayorkas was confirmed as Deputy Secretary for Homeland Security in December 2013 after leading the Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversee legal immigration.
“I think he is well aware of how the administration handled the 2014 crisis,” Doris Meissner, the Clinton administration’s immigration commissioner, said of Mr Mayorkas. And under Mr. Trump, the processing of asylum claims was effectively “stopped”.
“How can you get away with this, but put in place a system that actually allows for border control, as well as a system to judge protection claims that is fair and timely?” Said Ms. Meissner.
Biden’s advisers have said the new administration will re-commit to restoring the asylum process. But it’s unclear how he’ll fight a backlog of more than a million cases in the immigration court system that has left immigrants waiting years in the United States for decisions.
The Trump administration added another hurdle for Mr Biden last week, when it put in place sweeping rules that restrict the eligibility criteria for asylum seekers and order asylum officers to reject the claim. Most claims based on domestic violence or gang violence.
Immigration advocacy organizations have called on Mayorkas not only to reverse these policies, but to overhaul a border system that has been the point of contention for several administrations.
But he has already walked a tightrope in the face of these questions.
When Mr. Mayorkas finished his speech in Georgetown in 2016, an audience member urged him to know whether the Obama administration’s funding for detention centers would save him “the undue suffering of separation. family and community disruptions that immigration detention inevitably causes ”.
“Things are in tension. Many have expressed deep concern about the detention of families, about the detention of children, ”Mayorkas said, while also acknowledging the concern of deportation officers who had warned that some migrants would not appear for their hearings. if they were released. “Where you vote on that, you have to take all the factors into account and fundamentally answer them with what you think is most important.”