In a lengthy statement released Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas laid out his department’s plan to deal with an enormous increase in migration at the U.S.-Mexico border — a number of migrants that Mayorkas says has not been seen in the region in 20 years.
In his statement on Tuesday, Mayorkas called the situation “difficult,” but said his department was up to the task.
“The situation at the southwest border is difficult,” he said. “We are working around the clock to manage it and we will continue to do so. That is our job. We are making progress and we are executing on our plan. It will take time and we will not waver in our commitment to succeed.”
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Immigration agents have encountered well over 100,000 undocumented migrants at the border in the past five weeks. Most adult individuals or families that are encountered by agents are immediately expelled to Mexico
However, unaccompanied children who are encountered at the border are taken into U.S. custody, and reports indicate that there are more than 3,000 migrant children currently being held in federal facilities.
Mayorkas confirmed Tuesday that the U.S. is taking all children under 18 into custody and that agents have encountered unaccompanied children as young as 6 or 7 at the border.
“They are vulnerable children and we have ended the prior administration’s practice of expelling them,” Mayorkas said.
The law requires that children can only be held in Border Patrol facilities — which some have described as having “jail-like conditions” — for 72 hours. At that point, the children must be transferred to a facility run by the Department of Health and Human Services, where conditions are slightly more humane.
However, Mayorkas confirmed Tuesday that due to capacity issues, the 72-hour timeframe “is not always met.”
“HHS has not had the capacity to intake the number of unaccompanied children we have been encountering,” he said.
Mayorkas said that FEMA and HHS have already “established” a new facility that houses 700 children. He added that the U.S. is working to identify and screen more sponsors who can look after the children when they leave an HHS facility.
He also said that Homeland Security is in the process of creating “joint processing centers” with HHS so children will not need to be held in Border Patrol stations, something he called a “short-term solution.”
Mayorkas also added that the DHS and HHS has terminated a “chilling” agreement made during the Trump administration that kept potential sponsors from coming forward to look after the unaccompanied children, and restored a Central American Minors program that creates a legal pathway for children from the region to be processed for migration in their home country “in a safe and orderly way.”
In terms of longer-term solutions, Mayorkas said his department is building refugee programs in Central America and Mexico so individuals can apply for immigration in their home countries and avoid the dangerous journey north.
Mayorkas also promised to “shorten from years to months the time it takes to adjudicate an asylum claim while ensuring procedural safeguards and enhancing access to counsel.”
“I came to this country as an infant, brought by parents who understood the hope and promise of America. Today, young children are arriving at our border with that same hope," Mayorkas said. "We can do this.”
Read the entire statement on the Department of Homeland Security website.