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Border surge puts Democratic push for immigration reform on shaky ground

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasDeSantis: Florida officers to respond to 'border security crisis' in Texas, Arizona Hillicon Valley: Biden, Putin agree to begin work on addressing cybersecurity concerns | Senate panel unanimously advances key Biden cyber nominees | Rick Scott threatens to delay national security nominees until Biden visits border Biden expanding program for allowing young Central Americans into US MORE on Wednesday defended President BidenJoe BidenJapan to possibly ease COVID-19 restrictions before Olympics 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday China supplies millions of vaccine doses to developing nations in Asia MORE's immigration policies as a surge at the border leaves Democrats on shaky ground ahead of votes on a pair of immigration bills.

Mayorkas’s appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee comes as Republicans lean full tilt into a campaign to hold the Biden administration responsible for the growing numbers of migrants.

It also comes during “immigration week,” when House Democrats are set to tee up votes on legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for young people brought to the U.S. as children, known as Dreamers; some migrant farmworkers; and others who have been living in the U.S. with temporary status.

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The administration has repeatedly sought to paint the border situation as a result of the policies of the previous administration, a situation Mayorkas said the Biden team would handle with “fair and humane” practices.

“The situation is undoubtedly difficult. We are working around the clock to manage it,” he said. 

“We will also not waver in our values and our principles as a nation,” he said, adding that many Trump policies “defy values and principles for which we all stand.”

Apprehensions at the southern border increased 28 percent from January to February, to more than 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Border Patrol, and DHS on Tuesday said that the U.S. is “on pace to encounter more individuals on the Southwest border than we have in the last 20 years.”

The pressure on the border is threatening to become another roadblock to the immigration legislation Democrats hope to advance in the coming months.

Republicans said that both the smaller package of bills House Democrats plan to review on Thursday and Biden’s comprehensive immigration bill would be dead in the water until the border is secure.

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Rep. Maria E. Salazar (R-Fla.), a former Telemundo host who represents a predominantly Hispanic district in South Florida, held a press conference on Wednesday to unveil the GOP’s immigration bill

That legislation would also provide citizenship for Dreamers but calls for “enhanced physical barriers” at the border and swifter deportation of those with a criminal history. The legislation also includes a so-called trigger mechanism to “ensure border security is completed before other reforms take place.”

Biden’s immigration plan, which House leadership has committed to reviewing after the April recess, would include a pathway to citizenship to some 11 million people currently in the U.S., including those that are undocumented.

“Biden has lost control of the US-Mexico border,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOn The Money: Yellen, Powell brush off inflation fears | Fed keeps rates steady, upgrades growth projections Democrats shift tone on unemployment benefits Bipartisan infrastructure group grows to 20 senators MORE (R-S.C.) said. “Until he regains control, by implementing policies that work, it will be hard to do the Dreamers or anything else … legalizing anybody under these circumstances will lead to even more illegal immigration.” 

Meanwhile, a group of 40 Republican senators sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Wednesday asking the agency to limit Biden’s authority to halt construction of the border wall.

The back-and-forth comes amid a stunning surge in unaccompanied minors seeking entry to the U.S.

A new CBS News report found that the U.S. is in custody of 13,000 immigrant children.

New reports have emerged almost daily showing that children are being kept in Border Patrol cells meant for adults for longer than is legally allowed. Children are reportedly going days without showers or access to education, health and legal services as border officials struggle to keep up with the swell of migrants.

The Biden administration is turning away thousands of adults using a Trump-era regulation allowing swift deportations due to COVID-19, but has made the decision to allow children to stay in the country as their refugee claims are reviewed. The administration is scrambling to find new shelters to house the children, and reportedly plans to use a convention center in Dallas to house 3,000.

The poor conditions for children at the border are undercutting the Biden administration’s claim that it is implementing a more humane immigration policy than the Trump administration, which had a zero-tolerance approach that separated minors from their parents in an effort to discourage immigration.

Mayorkas on Wednesday lashed out at Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) for suggesting the Biden administration had created a humanitarian crisis.

“One of the tools of deterrence the Trump administration employed was deplorable and absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “And if we want to speak of language … I’ll share with you how I define a crisis. Crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a 9-year-old child away from his or her parent, and separate that family to deter future migration. That to me is a humanitarian crisis. What the president has committed to … is to ensure we have an immigration system that works and that migration to our country is safe, orderly and humane.”

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The Biden administration is furiously implementing measures aimed at easing the crisis.

Mayorkas has authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist in processing, transferring and sheltering children. 

The Office of Refugee Resettlement staff and Health and Human Services (HHS) workers have been embedded with Customs and Border Protection agents to assist in placing migrant children in HHS housing or sponsored homes.

And Biden rescinded a memorandum issued under Trump in an effort to encourage more families to sponsor immigrant children. Trump’s memorandum allowed for sponsor families to have their own immigration statuses investigated, which Biden officials viewed as a deterrent for placing unaccompanied minors. 

“The pernicious effect of that memorandum was in fact to chill relatives, sponsors from coming forward to shelter unaccompanied children,” Mayorkas told lawmakers. 

A new report from NBC released Wednesday found that the Biden administration had implemented an informal gag rule for border officials to keep pictures of the migrant camps and stories about the surge in border crossings under wraps.

“We're not hiding anything,” Biden’s border czar Roberta Jacobson said on MSNBC. “We do want to be sure that the story is told transparently. But we're also in a situation of urgent need for children and need to move children. And that has to take first priority.”