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Top border officials defend Biden policies

Top border officials defend Biden policies
© Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

The Biden team’s top border officials defended the administration’s policies before lawmakers Thursday as each party sought to pin blame on the other for the rising numbers at the Southwest border.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasDemocrats press ICE, DHS to not re-detain migrants released during pandemic Report: Nearly 4,000 children separated from parents at border under Trump Texas governor to sign bill banning vaccine passports MORE and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Tae Johnson both appeared before lawmakers, slamming Trump-era policies they said exacerbated problems at the border. 

But they also defended holding over policies that allow quick deportations in the name of COVID-19 as well as agreements with local law enforcement agencies.

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“They did nothing to facilitate addressing the surge. What they did was they dismantled the tools that we had to address it and they tore down the programs that could have helped alleviate the pressure,” Mayorkas told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, pointing the finger at the Trump administration. 

“It was antithetical to not only our values and our principles, but also our operational needs.”

In an appearance before the House Appropriations Committee, however, Johnson defended a number of policies advocates have urged the Biden administration to scrap — including those Biden promised during the campaign to repeal.

Top of the list is the CDC’s so-called Title 42 rule, promulgated under Trump, which the Biden administration has relied on extensively to deport single adults and even families who seek to cross the border. Biden has exempted unaccompanied children from the rule, following a late 2020 ruling barring its use on minors.

“ICE is concerned that the loss of Title 42 could create additional pressure on our immigration system,” Johnson said, nodding to litigation from the American Civil Liberties Association. He called the rule “critical” to maintaining social distance in border facilities.

“I don’t think it’s a situation where it’s going to just be lifted electively. We would be mandated by some sort of court order to lift it,” he added later.

In the Senate, Mayorkas also defended its use, even suggesting DHS had little power to limit it.

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“It is not a tool of immigration. It is a tool of public health, and therefore, the use of Title 42 will be governed by the CDC,” he said.

Johnson also faced questions on ICE agreements with local law enforcement agencies that allow those officers to carry out some immigration enforcement duties. Biden pledged during the campaign to repeal the so-called 287(g) agreements expanded under Trump, arguing they “undermine trust and cooperation” between law enforcement and the communities they serve. 

Subcommittee Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-AllardLucille Roybal-AllardBiden official defends Trump-era immigration policy Top border officials defend Biden policies House passes bills providing citizenship path for Dreamers, farmworkers MORE (D-Calif.) called attention to the issue at the hearing’s opening.

“ICE must find a better way to balance fulfilling its important mission and respecting the important mission of local law enforcement,” she said. 

“It is unfortunate that the prior administration’s aggressive interior enforcement policies placed demands on many local law enforcement agencies that have compromised the trust they work so hard to nurture in their communities.”

Johnson suggested that the policy was useful, but did not need to be imposed on cities and states that found it objectionable.

“It doesn’t have to be signing up for [the] 287(g) program but we just want to keep those lines of communication open,” he said, adding that “there is lots of middle ground out there.”

"There are a lot of jurisdictions that find the program useful, and others who have decided for whatever reasons that it's not as useful,” he continued.

But in a nod to immigration advocates, he indicated that the program should not overreach.

"I certainly recognize the issues associated with some that think that it just results in certain folks being apprehended and potentially targeted, which is certainly something I don't think any of us want to see," he added. 

The duo’s testimony comes as there were 178,622 arrests and detentions at the border in April, marking the highest one-month total in 20 years, though it represented just a slight uptick from March. But the administration made progress in reducing the number of unaccompanied minors in government custody, dropping to 13,962 in April from 15,918 in March, a decrease of about 9 percent.

That decrease has been the most pronounced in Customs and Border Protection, where as of May 11 the agency had 1,422 minors in their custody, while the rest are in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services.

But the improving figures did little to assuage GOP lawmakers in the Senate.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt Romney Eugene Goodman to throw out first pitch at Nationals game White House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain On The Money: Consumer prices jumped 5 percent annually in May | GOP senators say bipartisan group has infrastructure deal MORE (R-Utah) bashed Biden’s plan to try and stem migration with a “root causes” strategy that would funnel aid to Central America.

“We can't solve all the problems of the world, let alone the problems in Latin America,” he said, slamming Mayorkas for not offering up a new response to the border given rising numbers.

“There are human beings behind these numbers, and he is not saying hey we've got to make some changes immediately.”

But Mayorkas defended the current strategy, noting that “90 percent of these children have a parent or legal guardian in the United States, and they have a claim of fear of persecution ... or have a claim under the law for humanitarian relief.”

Mayorkas also dodged questions from Democrats about DHS’s use of private detention facilities after Biden in late April suggested he would end the use of private contracts.

“Private detention centers — they should not exist and we are working to close all of them,” Biden said at a rally in Georgia. 

Mayorkas said only that he was in the process of consulting his staff on the issue.

“I intend to begin taking action very quickly,” he said.

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Both also spent time defending Biden’s new enforcement policies, which encourages ICE officers to remove only those with more serious criminal records, even as Republicans worry some may avoid deportation.

“While the overall apprehensions are down, I think when you have officers focusing on what they think are the worst of the worst, then they are actually able to make a meaningful impact on public safety,” Johnson said.

In the Senate, Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordPolice reform negotiations enter crucial stretch GOP turns against Jan. 6 probe as midterm distraction The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden wants Congress to pass abortion bill, pushes for Mideast cease-fire MORE (R-Okla.) complained that the new policy requires ICE officers to get approval from a higher up in order to arrest someone that doesn’t fit the new priorities.

“There is a real concern about the additional hoops that people have to go through, which seems to discourage them,” he said.