DHS chief ‘horrified’ by images at border

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas is sworn in during a Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to discuss security threats 20 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Tuesday, September 21, 2021.
Greg Nash

GOP senators on Tuesday grilled Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over the influx of Haitian refugees seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border and viral images of Customs and Border Patrol officials on horseback chasing migrants away.  

Mayorkas told lawmakers there would be no tolerance for the abuse of migrants during his appearance before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“I was horrified to see the images, and we look forward to learning the facts that are produced from the investigation, and we will take actions that those facts compel,” he said.

“We do not tolerate any mistreatment or abuse of a migrant, period,” Mayorkas added, nodding to his agency’s commitment to investigate the officers’ behavior.

While the event has placed a renewed focus on the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) treatment of migrants, Mayorkas said the administration has no plans to cease flights to a country that in a matter of months has seen an earthquake and an assassination attempt that have led to severe instability.

“We are increasing the frequency and number of the repatriation flights each day,” Mayorkas said.

“And we’re hoping that what we are doing now serves as a deterrent because it backs up the words that we have spoken since the very outset: that irregular migration is not the way to enter the United States. It will not work.”

The Biden administration resumed flights to Haiti last week, expelling more than 500 people back to the country.

The situation reached a tipping point in Del Rio after more than 10,000 camped out under a bridge spanning the U.S. and Mexico border with plans to seek asylum.

Republicans seized on what they argue is a worsening situation that the Biden administration has done little to resolve in eight months in office.

“Every time you come before this committee, you always say, ‘It’s going to get better. Our plan is going to work at some future point.’ And you also usually say ‘It’s really not as bad as it looks.’ And then every time you leave, it gets worse and worse,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said during the committee hearing.

“This is a humanitarian crisis in Del Rio,” he said, pointing to a town on the border where thousands of Haitians had gathered after crossing into the U.S.

Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the committee’s top Republican, said the situation serves as a reminder that the U.S. needs to prepare for a scenario in which the courts might overturn Title 42, arguing that America’s current asylum system is too much of a draw.

“We need an alternative. We’ve got to figure out a way to discourage people from coming to our country by letting them know the border is not open. You can’t just come and say that you claim asylum and be able to come in the United States indefinitely, you have to be able to prove that,” he said.  

On the Afghanistan front, lawmakers aired frustration with Mayorkas over a lack of data disclosed by an administration that had boasted of evacuating more than 124,000 people but hasn’t provided a precise breakdown of the different categories of people who fled the country.

“We don’t know … where they’re going, who they are, are they coming here or not, we don’t know the breakdown of refugees and parolees, we don’t know the breakdown of SIVs, Special Immigrant Visas, and what are called partial SIV immigrant visas or folks that were American citizens and green card holders. There’s some very basic pieces of information that we keep trying to be able to get,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said.

“None of those should be unrealistic questions. Those all should be data points that should be coming to you.”

Mayorkas said roughly 12,000 Afghans remain at different military sites while they await vetting to enter the U.S. and that 60,000 Afghans have entered the country. Of those, he said nearly 8,000 are either U.S. citizens or residents, while about 1,800 are SIV holders.

But he did not provide numbers on Afghans who fit into the Priority 1 and Priority 2 categories created for vulnerable Afghans and others who assisted in a range of U.S. projects.

Portman said the U.S. left allies behind while DHS has relied too heavily on “paroling” people into the country, using a process that allows them to temporarily waive immigration requirements to allow people to enter the U.S. and begin the work to gain status.

He asked Mayorkas if he was concerned about parolees who don’t fit into categories for people entering the country.

“We all know that we left American citizens behind, but mostly we left behind people who had helped us,” he said. But we also had people get on these flights to leave, who, as far as we know at this point, had no connection to us in the sense of helping us or helping our allies.”

Mayorkas pushed back, saying the people described by Portman are a mix of those still having their SIV processed or who likely qualify for the P1 and P2 programs.

Asked by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) about how many who were evacuated failed screenings, Mayorkas called the number “de minimis.”

The hearing follows months of major cyberattacks that have impacted thousands of U.S. government and private organizations, including the SolarWinds hack discovered in December, which involved Russian government-linked hackers compromising nine federal agencies.

Ransomware attacks have also been brought to the forefront by attacks in May on Colonial Pipeline and meat producer JBS USA, along with a ransomware attack in July on IT group Kaseya, which affected up to 1,500 groups.

Kaseya chose not to pay the ransom and eventually was able to use a decryption key provided by an unnamed third party to help victims recover. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the FBI and other agencies gained access to the decryption key shortly after the attack but held on to it for almost three weeks due to an effort to disrupt the criminal group responsible.

Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) drilled FBI Director Christopher Wray on the decision at Tuesday’s hearing. Wray testified that he was “limited” in what he could say given the ongoing investigation into the hacking incident and emphasized that other agencies including the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency were involved in the decision.

“When it comes to the issue of encryption keys or decryption keys, there is a lot of testing and validating that is required to make sure that they are going to actually do what they are supposed to do,” Wray testified. “Sometimes we have to make calculations about how best to help the most people, because maximizing impact is always the goal.”

Tags Afghanistan Alejandro Mayorkas Christopher Wray DHS FBI Gary Peters Haiti Immigration James Lankford Josh Hawley Ransom attacks Rob Portman

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