Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas described the current climate situation as a “crisis” that threatens national security but refused to characterize the rise in migrants at the southern border in equally strong terms.
Despite having called the border situation “overwhelming” in an email to staffers, Mayorkas would only call problems created by the migrant surge “challenges,” leading Republicans to challenge his word choice during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday.
“Given the tremendous rise and surge of individuals coming to the border, wouldn’t it be fair to call it a crisis? Because that’s what your agents are calling it,” said the committee’s ranking member, Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y.
Mayorkas refused, stating he was not concerned with arguments over semantics.
“I’m not spending any time on the language that we use. I am spending time on operational response to the situation at the border,” he said.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, pressed Mayorkas on this, insisting that how officials discuss issues have an impact.
“I believe that words do matter. I know you mentioned that maybe the language doesn’t matter. I think words do matter,” he said. “I think you sent exactly the wrong message when you stated, quote, ‘We’re not saying don’t come, we’re just saying don’t come now.’ That is not a message of deterrence.”
McCaul noted that in 2014, then-President Obama described a surge of migrants at the border as a “humanitarian crisis” and said Obama was right to do so.
McCaul said former President Trump did “a masterful job” with the “remain in Mexico” policy that reduced the number of people coming to the border with asylum claims. He said President Biden sent the wrong message by reversing policies.
“Cartels and traffickers see that the green light is on at our southern border and the United States is open for business again,” he said.
McCaul noted that Mayorkas himself has said the U.S. is on pace to encounter more people at the border than in the past 20 years.
“You may call that only a challenge, but I call that a crisis,” he said.
This time, Mayorkas pushed back, asserting that the real crisis was the one that arose under the Trump administration when large numbers of families were separated at the border due to a zero-tolerance policy in which federal authorities prosecuted every case of suspected illegal border crossing.
“I will share with you how I define a crisis. A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a 9-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future migration,” Mayorkas said. “That to me is a humanitarian crisis.”
McCaul said he was also against separating families but said that from a foreign policy standpoint “it was a blunder” to rescind Trump administration policies, leading to a surge in migrants.
In his prepared written testimony, Mayorkas referred to “historic and unprecedented challenges at the border” and said the Biden administration “is fully committed to addressing long-standing migration challenges in the region and at the border.”
In his 10-page statement, the secretary only used the word “crisis” to describe one of several problems the country is facing, specifically “[e]xtreme weather events and other impacts of the climate crisis that threaten lives and livelihoods.”
Regarding the border situation, Mayorkas said the administration is taking measures to deal with the rising number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the southern border.
“We have taken a series of actions to address the increase in the number of unaccompanied children at the border,” he said. “We have increased our capacity to hold the children until HHS can shelter them while it identifies and vets the children’s sponsors.”
Mayorkas also pointed to the administration’s reinstatement of the Central American Minors (CAM) program, which had been scrapped by the Trump administration. The CAM program helps children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras reunite with parents lawfully in the U.S. without them having to travel alone to the border unsure of what will happen when they get there.