WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearing in three years on oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, with Republicans taking the meeting as a chance to criticize U.S. immigration policies amid historic levels of pressure at the southern border.
While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree America's immigration system is fractured and broken, a flashpoint exists when it comes to which administration they blame for bureaucratic issues and what policies can resolve the humanitarian crisis.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who took over the role nine months ago after a revolving door of Trump appointees cycled through the position, appeared before the committee Tuesday at a time when Border Patrol agents stopped 1.7 million individuals crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said Mayorkas inherited a department in chaos, noting the near-constant rotation of new secretaries throughout the Trump administration and highly criticized policy of separating families at the southern border, a policy Biden ended at the start of his administration.
"Not only were President Trump's policies often inhumane and unlawful, they also failed to secure our border and fix our badly broken administration system," Durbin said. “I believe we can secure our border while treating people humanely. It is not only possible to do, it is necessary."
Democrats as well as Mayorkas criticized the Trump administration's hardline policies that divided families in detention camps, and they called for new legislation to provide pathways to citizenship, visas and humanitarian protections for undocumented immigrants.
Mayorkas said that the department needs Congress to pass new regulations for the processing of asylum claims, in addition to providing additional support to help with backlogs at immigration courts.
"We are addressing irregular migration and working to rebuild a safe, orderly and humane immigration system. The challenge of doing so is made more difficult by the ongoing impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and a system that was decimated by the prior administration," Mayorkas said. "We must invest in addressing root causes, creating legal pathways and ensuring swift adjudication of asylum claims. The immigration system, though, is fundamentally broken."
The Biden administration has pushed for new immigration policies in recent weeks, banning immigration enforcement arrests in "protected areas" such as schools, hospitals and churches, and pushing back on a federal court order to reinstate a Trump-era policy that would send thousands of asylum applicants to Mexico while they wait for a decision on their cases.
The most recent draft of the Build Back Better Act, which remains in limbo in the House, also includes a provision that would allow some undocumented immigrants to apply for five-year work permits.
Senate Republicans on the committee lambasted these moves by the Biden administration, claiming Democrats are creating "pull factors" that will encourage undocumented immigration and blaming Biden for the high number of migrants without legal documentation at the border over the past year.
"There’s enough laws on the books, but the laws aren’t being enforced," Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said. "When you run DHS like it’s an 'Abolish ICE' fan club, you shouldn’t be surprised when you have an immigration crisis on your hands."
Mayorkas said he supports the federal agencies and laws responsible for enforcing immigration policies and that the country needs to prioritize both security and human rights.
“There are more than 12 million unlawfully present individuals in the United States, many of whom have been in this country for years and years and have been contributing members of our society. One example, just one example, are the individuals who do the back breaking word of picking food that arrives on our table every day. So it is not only a matter of allocating resources smartly and effectively, but it is also a matter of justice," Mayorkas said of immigration policy.
Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee accused Mayorkas and the Department of Homeland Security of allowing criminals into the United States, reading off the names of three immigrants who were convicted of crimes against American citizens.
“If you want to talk about getting to root causes, get a border wall," Blackburn said.
Mayorkas said Border Patrol is in need of more technology-based solutions, not a wall.
"There are different solutions for the border because of its tremendous expanse," Mayorkas said. "We are not going to construct a border wall along the ragged and jagged cliffs along certain parts of the border."
Several Republicans also grilled Mayorkas over talks that the Department of Justice may reach financial settlements with families who were separated at the southern border during the Trump and administration, slamming the potential settlements as "handouts."
"Who do you think is more deserving of cash payments from the United States government, illegal migrants who cross our borders or the family of U.S. soldiers who are killed in action?," Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, asked Mayorkas.
The secretary replied that the dispute is one being handled by the Department of Justice, not Homeland Security, and that he would not comment on cases that are being adjudicated.
"What is an appropriate outcome of that litigation in response in response to the family separation policy, the cruel policy, is something I cannot opine on," Mayorkas said.
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