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Mayorkas says ‘the border is closed,’ defends Biden’s immigration strategy

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during a March 1 news briefing at the White House. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended President Biden’s immigration strategy and emphasized in multiple interviews Sunday that the southern border of the United States “is closed,” as the Biden administration faces criticism over a record number of migrants seeking entry into the country from Mexico and Central America.

Mayorkas, who appeared on almost all of the major political shows Sunday morning, sought to push a consistent message as the Biden administration is being pressed about conditions in overcrowded detention centers for unaccompanied immigrant children.

“The border is closed. We are expelling families. We are expelling single adults,” Mayorkas said Sunday on NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” adding that unaccompanied minors should not attempt to make any journey to the U.S.-Mexico border now. “We strongly urge, and the message is clear, not to do so now. I cannot overstate the perils of the journey that they take.”

Mayorkas said the administration’s “message has been straightforward and simple,” and Biden himself last week disputed that the surge was a result of his overturning some of former president Donald Trump’s policies. But the message coming from the administration has at times been conflicting, particularly Mayorkas’s message that asylum seekers should not come “now” while other members of the administration have said they should not come, period, and should seek asylum from where they are. That has frustrated even some of their Democratic allies steeped in immigration issues.

President Biden’s Homeland Security secretary reiterated the plea to migrants to stay in their home country amid a surge on the border on March 21. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Many Republicans have blamed Biden’s rollbacks for the sharp rise in migrants arriving, saying he did away with Trump’s policies prematurely and without backup systems in place. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) on Sunday said Biden should not have changed Trump policies such as “Remain in Mexico,” which under the previous administration meant asylum seekers needed to wait outside of the United States for their cases to be decided.

“It was working. It disincentivized people from taking this dangerous trip,” Ducey said of the policy on ABC News’s “This Week.”

Democrats have emphasized they are attempting to take a more humane approach to immigration. Mayorkas on Sunday reiterated that the Biden administration would not “expel into the Mexican desert” young, vulnerable children like the last administration did.

Mayorkas also blamed Trump for dismantling processes such as the Central American Minors Program, which laid out an “orderly, human and efficient way of allowing children to make their claims under United States law in their home countries.” It would take time to rebuild such processes, he said repeatedly.

“I think we are executing on our plans. And quite frankly, when we are finished doing so, the American public will look back on this and say we secured our border and we upheld our values and our principles as a nation,” Mayorkas said.

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Late Sunday, as he returned to the White House from Camp David, Biden briefly told reporters that “a lot more” could be done with regard to immigration.

“We’re in the process of doing it now, including making sure that we reestablish what existed before [Trump], which was they can stay in place and make their case from their home country,” Biden said.

The president also said he would travel to the border “at some point.”

Trump, meanwhile, issued a statement Sunday evening claiming the Biden administration had “turned a national triumph into a national disaster” and called on the president to reinstate the building of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“They are in way over their heads and taking on water fast,” Trump stated.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) laid the blame at the feet of the Trump administration, noting Trump also cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, exacerbating the problem.

“This is a result of four years of failed policies, inhumane policies and a systematic dismantling of the asylum system by Donald Trump,” Duckworth said Sunday on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.”

Roberta Jacobson, a White House national security adviser, on March 10 warned migrants the U.S. southern "border is not open." (Video: The Washington Post)

Ducey said he thought Biden could be doing more, including working with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to get across the message that migrants should not attempt to enter the United States right now.

“He’s got a big microphone. He needs to use it appropriately,” Ducey said.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said on “Face the Nation” that he did not feel Mayorkas’s message would be enough to deter the record numbers of immigrants arriving at the border.

“People are going to listen to actions and watch actions and not listen to words,” said Portman, who toured border facilities last week. “I spoke to single individuals who are coming over at night, men who told me that they’d heard what President Biden said and they were coming anyway because they could make a lot more, 10 times more in the United States.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) predicted there would be 1 million people trying to get into the United States by summertime.

“The traffickers are smart, cartels are smart. They know our laws, policies,” McCaul said Sunday on “This Week.” “The messages coming back that, ‘Hey, we got a new president. Come on in. We’re open for business to the traffickers.’ ”

Senators see dire conditions in packed border stations, as officials consider flying migrants north

One point of bipartisan agreement is that the issue is increasingly urgent. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have recently sounded the alarm over “significant overcrowding” at migrant detention facilities. The Washington Post reported Saturday that there are now more than 15,000 unaccompanied migrant children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services and of Customs and Border Protection. Biden earlier this month deployed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help care for the influx of children arriving at the border.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Mayorkas said the Biden administration is working with Mexico to improve the country’s capacity to receive families expelled from the United States.

He also said the pandemic was preventing greater press access at the border, under criticism that the Biden administration was not being transparent about the conditions at border facilities, but that “we are in the midst of a pandemic, and we’re focused on operations and executing on our plans.”

Mayorkas did not comment on reports of migrants testing positive for the coronavirus, but he said minors arriving are tested, isolated and quarantined, and that covid-19 policies are operated “very efficiently.”

Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.