Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas gave many I-don’t-know responses Thursday to senators on both sides of the aisle while blaming the Trump administration for the surge of illegal immigrants at the southern border.

Mayorkas boasted of success, made a political reference to “build back better,” and accused former President Donald Trump of having “dismantled” border security. 

His boasts were undermined, however, as several Republican senators pointed to charts demonstrating the massive border surge that occurred after President Joe Biden came into office Jan. 20. 

Here are seven key moments as Mayorkas testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. 

1. Qualifying for Asylum

The bulk of asylum-seekers do not end up qualifying for asylum. However, Mayorkas seemed not to be aware of this when questioned by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

“What they did is they ended catch and release,” Johnson said, referring to the Trump administration. “They ended the enormous incentive for people to come into this country and exploit our very generous societal laws.”

The Wisconsin Republican then asked: “Mr. Secretary, real quick, isn’t it true that when cases are actually adjudicated on asylum, about 90% of them are denied?” 

Mayorkas replied: “I don’t believe that is true.”

Johnson followed, “What is the real percentage then?”

Mayorkas said, “Um, Senator, I don’t have the data right before me. But I’m very happy to.”

Johnson parried: “OK, please get that for me.”

About 8 out of 10 Central Americans seeking asylum do not qualify or will fail to show up for their court hearing. Since 2012, fewer than 2% of illegal immigrant families ordered to return home actually have done so, according to the Department of Homeland Security. 

Later in the hearing, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., brought up the issue of illegal immigrants being released without even being given a notice to appear for a court date. 

“You’ve given testimony about the notice to appear,” Lankford said to Mayorkas. “We understand there have been 19,000 individuals that have crossed the border this calendar year that were not given a notice to appear. Are you saying that’s incorrect?”

Mayorkas replied: “Senator, I’m not aware of that number.”

2. ‘Build Back Better Is Not a Slogan’ 

It wasn’t just Republican senators who had trouble getting answers from Biden’s homeland security secretary. 

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked about children and their caretakers that arrive. 

“A young boy who had arrived with his older brother but was separated from him and being processed separately, and therefore was alone,” Peters said. “Do you know how many children arrive with caretakers who are not their parents? Do you have any numbers related to that?”

Mayorkas said he was unaware. 

“Mr. Chairman, I don’t have those numbers with me,” Mayorkas said. “I would welcome the opportunity to see if we collect that data and circle back with you.”

However, the secretary pivoted to talk about the Biden agenda, repeating the president’s 2020 campaign slogan to senators. 

“I believe in enforcing the law, and the law includes the humanitarian laws that Congress passed,” Mayorkas said. “Those too are deserving of enforcement.” 

He added:

Building back better is not a slogan. It is a mandate and it is a mandate that I am obligated to carry out as a member of President Biden’s Cabinet. That is exactly what we are doing. So the issue that you raise is something we are very carefully looking at. Not only have we brought our capacities, our talent, our expertise to bear to address the surge of unaccompanied children that started in April of 2020, but we are taking a look at the process, the system, and how we can reengineer it for a better future.

During the Trump administration, border officials deported nearly 7,000 illegal aliens to Mexico within three weeks of implementing streamlined procedures March 21, 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Reuters news agency reported. Citing government data and an anonymous Mexican official, Reuters reported in early April 2020 that 377 of those deported were minors.

3. Focusing on Unaccompanied Children

Mayorkas noted a substantial reduction since March 29 in the number of illegal immigrants detained for crossing the border illegally. 

He also touted the strong relationship between his department and the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The challenge is not behind us, but the results are dramatic,” Mayorkas said. “Not only did we mobilize the talented workforce of the Department of Homeland Security, [but did so] in partnership with our colleagues at HHS.”

When unaccompanied minors are caught crossing the border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection transfers children to the custody of HHS.

“We didn’t have that capacity at HHS,” Mayorkas said. “We didn’t have the shelters and the processes in place and the resources in place to achieve that. That is what we have built.”

However, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the committee’s ranking member, said parents in Central American countries had stopped paying traffickers to send their children to the United States during the Trump administration. 

The practice resumed after Jan. 21, Portman said, pointing to a chart.  

“What happened is, when the Biden administration came in, they made a decision. You were asked to implement it,” Portman said, adding:

I remember talking to you at the time and you realized this was going to result in some real issues. But, the thought was, this is the humane way to go. Let’s allow these kids to come in. So don’t blame the previous administration for not having facilities that they didn’t need because they didn’t have the surge. Again, let’s look at the numbers. So, here we are. What do we do is the question. 

Portman said the situation is not in the best interest of the children. 

“We’ve all heard the horrifying stories of the trauma some children experience on their way north [to the U.S.-Mexico border]. We’ve heard of sexual assault and other abuses, including, unfortunately, at HHS facilities,” Portman said. 

The Ohio Republican said hundreds of federal employees with no specialized training are caring for the unaccompanied minors. 

“HHS is repeating the same mistakes of the two previous administrations as they deal with this crisis. With the overwhelming number of children, HHS has released children quickly without proper background checks and sponsors or other adults in the same household,” Portman said, adding: 

We know that in some cases in the past, children have even been sent back to their traffickers, and HHS has lost contact with these kids. I’m glad Customs and Border Protection has moved children to HHS, but these children have only been moved from one federal agency to another, and now HHS is in crisis. Moving from one unsafe, overcrowded facility to another is not a measure of success. Neither is releasing them to sponsors who have not been properly vetted. 

The testimony showed why Mayorkas is not the right person for the job, said James Carafano, vice president for national security and foreign policy at The Heritage Foundation. 

“Mayorkas repeatedly pleaded ignorance or dodged legitimate questions about the state of the border crisis,” Carafano said in a public statement. “The reason why is obvious: The crisis has gotten so bad, those responsible for it are working overtime to avoid accountability and embarrassment for their failure to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”

Carafano added: 

The secretary repeatedly misled the public about the border crisis, falsely blaming the Trump administration for the crisis President Biden’s policies created. He refused to acknowledge the Biden administration’s policies as a major factor in the massive increase in illegal immigration since Biden took office. He all but shed tears over the plight of unaccompanied minors (UACs) making the trek to the southern border, while failing to acknowledge the Biden administration’s role in driving a historic number of [unaccompanied children] to the border in the first place.

The Heritage Foundation is the parent organization of The Daily Signal.

4. ‘Dramatically Different’

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, pressed Mayorkas on why his department isn’t looking at different actions, again pointing to a chart demonstrating the surge at the border. 

“I’m delighted that we are not having kids sleeping on floors and in cages, but the number coming into our country is at a skyrocketed level,” Romney told the secretary.

“The question is, do you have plans to do something dramatically different so that those numbers come down to an acceptable level?” Romney asked. “As you can imagine, this overwhelms our Border Patrol agents. If they’ve got numbers like this they are dealing with, that means the drug cartels can be smuggling through drugs because our folks are taking care of kids. They are taking care of people coming in illegally. Do we have plans to dramatically address what’s happening here?”

Mayorkas responded that Customs and Border Protection has to follow certain procedures. 

“The laws of our country provide certain procedures and certain rights for people who arrive unaccompanied and have claims of asylum, who claim fear of persecution by reason of their membership in a particular social group,” Mayorkas said, adding: “Senator, we are the United States of America. Ninety percent of these children have a parent or legal guardian in the United States and they have a claim of fear of persecution.”

Romney still sounded miffed. 

“What I find astonishing, Mr. Chairman, is that we have the secretary responsible for securing our border and our immigration system who doesn’t recognize these charts as being a problem,” Romney said. “And there are human beings behind these numbers, and he is not saying we have got to make changes immediately. I find that extraordinary and extremely damning.”

5. America ‘Complicit’ in Border Surge

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the demand for drugs inside the United States and the nation’s inability to help fix root causes in other countries have led to the surge. 

Carper invoked the Bible before asking his question, apparently paraphrasing Jesus in Matthew 25:35

“We are reminded in Scripture: ‘When I was a stranger in your land, you welcomed me.’ We are reminded of the Flores decision, which reflects and mirrors I think very much the message in Matthew 25, a moral obligation to the least of theseincluding people that are trying to escape violence, crime, and corruption and lack of opportunity, which we are complicit in by virtue of our addiction to illegal drugs that are trafficked through these countries.” 

Carper was referring to the so-called Flores settlement in 1997, which ended a class action lawsuit against the federal government during Bill Clinton’s presidency. The settlement established a policy that the federal government would release unaccompanied minors from custody to parents, other relatives, or other caretakers after no more than 20 days, or, alternatively, determine the “least restrictive” setting for children caught trying to cross the border.

The Delaware Democrat backed up Mayorkas’ claims of progress, bringing out his own charts that showed the number of children in Customs and Border Protection custody March 28 dropped by May 10 from 5,767 to 455. 

Carper didn’t mention that the children had been transferred from one government agency to another. 

“That’s a reduction of 92%,” he said. “That’s an improvement. That’s a marked improvement.”

Carper cited what he called the three primary reasons that citizens of Central American countries and other nations are trying to come to the United States. 

“No. 1, lack of opportunity at home; No. 2, crime and violence; No. 3, corruption,” he said. 

The United States should provide more money to help solve these problems and appoint ambassadors to Central America countries with the biggest problems, Carper said. Neither Honduras nor El Salvador have Senate-confirmed U.S. ambassadors as yet, he said. 

He went on to ask Mayorkas whether people with asylum claims can apply in their home countries.

“The ability for young peopleor not-so-young peopleto apply for asylum within their own countries at our embassies, at our consulates, is that something we are doing a satisfactory job at doing?” Carper asked. 

Mayorkas said that is one aspect his department is focused on. 

“We have a three-pronged approach: to address the root causes, to build legal pathways, to advocate that Congress pass immigration reform,” Mayorkas told Carper. “The building of legal pathways, if we can in fact adjudicate claims in the countries of origin or in truly safe places, then we will spare children the perilous journey north.”

6. Not ‘Disappointed’ With Biden-Harris No-Show

Mayorkas said he had no problems that neither Biden nor Vice President Kamala Harris has taken time to visit the southern border. 

On March 24, Biden assigned Harris to address the situation at the border. 

“You’ve seen this chart. The unbelievable increase in apprehensions, and also the chart that showed how many unaccompanied minors,” Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said to Mayorkas. 

“Are you disappointed that President Biden and Vice President Harris have not taken the time to come to the border to see firsthand what a lot of us have seen, that there is clearly a crisis that we have to address?” Scott asked the homeland security secretary

He asked again: “Are you disappointed that President Biden and Vice President Harris have not taken the time to come to the border?”

“Absolutely not,” Mayorkas replied, adding that DHS has handled the situation.

7. Worrying About COVID-19

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., asked about the release of illegal immigrants into the United States who had tested positive for COVID-19. Sinema said she had confirmed this practice with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as nongovernmental organizations. 

“My office has also received confirmation from local NGO and ICE officials that some COVID-positive migrants have been released into communities without sufficient resources or direct access to quarantine shelters,” Sinema said. “What are the department’s policies for releasing COVID-positive migrants, and what steps could DHS take to improve these policies to keep both migrants and our communities safe?”

Mayorkas said homeland security officials are trying to strengthen the “architecture” to ensure such cases are minimal: 

We’ve built an architecture of working with local officials and nongovernmental organizations to transport family members to local facilities, to the nongovernmental organizations that have the capacity to test, isolate, and quarantineas necessaryfamily members. This is an architecture that we have built in Texas, in Arizona, in California. It’s really a remarkable achievement. We are continuing to look at that architecture and see how it can be strengthened and improved. 

Ken McIntyre contributed to this report.

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