Hispanic lawmakers fret over Biden approach on family migrants 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a news conference in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, on new border enforcement measures to limit unlawful migration, expand pathways for legal immigration, and increase border security. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) are wary over the Biden administration’s noncommittal approach to permanently nixing family detention for migrants at the border. 

Administration officials have repeatedly refused to rule out reinstating the policy ended by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2021, following reports Monday that a return to family detention was floated in internal deliberations. 

Those reports set off an array of furious reactions from CHC members, who see the end of family detention as a bright spot in an otherwise patchy immigration record for the Biden administration. 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas met late Tuesday with some CHC members to quell concerns about an imminent return to family detention, but several members skipped the call. 

“You’re trying to appease some of the extremists that want to seal the border on the Republican side and [insulate from] the heat that you’re getting, and the feel that this is a political liability and have to be a little bit tougher than we are,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), one of the members who skipped the call with Mayorkas, told The Hill on Wednesday. 

Grijalva faulted the Biden administration for even considering such a policy he sees as a misguided attempt to win points from those tough on the border ahead of the election. 

“You’re trying to appease some of the extremists that want to seal the border on the Republican side and [insulate from] the heat that you’re getting, and they feel that this is a political liability and have to be a little bit tougher than we are,” he said. 

“So the detention thing is going to spawn other problems: the family separation issue, what do you do with kids? Do you put them into detention? All those arguments that happened under Trump, you’re going to revitalize those,” Grijalva added. 

CHC members who attended Mayorkas’s call generally expressed confidence that family detention was not in the cards, at least in the short term. 

Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) said Mayorkas told members “that it was just an idea floated.” 

Rep. Verónica Escobar (D-Texas), a close ally of the administration on immigration and border security issues, said she has “really great open lines of communication with the secretary,” but said a return to family detention would cross a red line. 

“We have an obligation to provide solutions and ideas to the administration. That’s what I stay focused on. But I’m also never shy to indicate what policies are red lines or are absolutely unacceptable. Family detention to me is absolutely unacceptable. It’s damaging to children. And I applaud the administration and Secretary Mayorkas for having eliminated it as a policy,” said Escobar. 

Another matter of discussion is where the suggestion of returning to the family detention policy is coming from.  

Mayorkas told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview that aired Wednesday that the proposal that set off a panic over family detention came from within Homeland Security, and declined to rule out the possibility of reinstating the policy. 

“One thing, Christiane, that I promote in this department is to put all options on the table. Great, good, bad, terrible, let us discuss them and many will be left on the cutting room floor, but the best ideas blossom from open and candid dialogue and really just a robust discussion of alternatives. We haven’t made a decision yet,” he said. 

Ahead of the CHC’s Tuesday evening meeting with Mayorkas, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested the idea might have come from Director of the United States Domestic Policy Council Susan Rice, showcasing a growing tension between the White House and some Democrats over immigration generally. 

Menendez expressed frustration in general with the lack of communication from the administration on immigration issues, and said the issue of returning to family detention had not come up during a meeting he attended with Mayorkas last month. He then suggested the policy idea might not have originated with Mayorkas.  

“I don’t know if Secretary Mayorkas is the genesis of this idea, might be more like Susan Rice,” Menéndez told reporters. 

Pressed on whether family detentions were coming up because of a shift under new White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, who took on his duties in February, Menendez doubled down. 

“No I don’t think it’s Zients, to be honest with you. I think it’s more Susan Rice,” he said. 

Pressed over the remark Wednesday evening, a spokesperson for Menendez told The Hill that “the senator’s words speak for themselves.” 

The spokesperson did not offer any specific evidence for his remarks.  

“This is categorically false,” White House spokesman Abdullah Hasan said of Menendez’s remarks about Rice.

Mayorkas’s reassurances to the CHC at the very least put the ball back in the administration’s court. 

“We had a meeting yesterday because an article came out in a reputable paper, and as a result of that we called the secretary in charge of that matter before us. He responded; we really appreciate that. We had a frank discussion. And now we’re going to move on to wait and see what the administration does,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.).   

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Alejandro Mayorkas Biden Bob Menendez Congressional Hispanic Caucus Darren Soto Homeland Security Department immigration Jeff Zients Raul Grijalva Raul Grijalva Susan Rice Veronica Escobar Veronica Escobar

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