“I think next week we’ll have more to say about our preparation and some of the things we are going to be doing,” Mayorkas told reporters at DHS headquarters in Washington.
The large number of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border remains a political liability for President Biden ahead of his potential bid for reelection in 2024, presenting his administration with immediate logistical challenges. Administration officials are eager to avoid a replay of the images in September 2021, when a mass crossing by Haitian migrants into Del Rio, Tex., overwhelmed U.S. authorities and resulted in chaos.
Troy Miller, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told lawmakers Wednesday that he is bracing for illegal crossings to double to more than 10,000 per day after May 11, the date the Biden administration picked to end the emergency health restrictions known as Title 42. The policy allows authorities to quickly expel migrants back to Mexico or their home countries without providing them the opportunity to seek asylum.
“We’re certainly going to see numbers higher than we’re seeing today,” Miller said during a House subcommittee budget hearing.
Miller cited U.N. estimates that more than 660,000 migrants are in Mexico. That includes at least 200,000 Haitians and Venezuelans — groups that have been coming to the United States in record numbers since Biden took office.
Since March 2020, DHS has leaned on the Title 42 policy as its primary enforcement tool, expelling more than 2 million migrants back to Mexico or their home countries. But Biden officials face pressure from immigrant advocates and some Democrats calling for an end to the policy they view as a carry-over from the Trump administration’s harsher approach.
DHS officials further blame the Title 42 policy for encouraging repeat illegal crossing attempts because migrants don’t face the threat of federal prosecution and jail time that they would under standard immigration rules. Lifting Title 42, Biden officials say, is key to restoring the legal consequences they need to deter illegal entries.
Previous attempts by the Biden administration to lift Title 42 have been blocked in federal court by Republican state officials who argued that their budgets would be strained by a major influx of newcomers needing medical care, schooling and other public services.
Biden officials say they now have a clear path to end Title 42 because the president has lifted the coronavirus public health emergency that formed the underlying basis for the border restrictions. Barring a last-minute court ruling, the policy will expire on May 11.
“Biden ending Title 42 next month will cause an even greater spike in record-high illegal border crossings,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) wrote on Twitter on Thursday, saying he was sending “specialized units” to the border, including the El Paso area where crossings have rebounded sharply in recent weeks.
“Texas will use every available tool to secure our border,” Abbott wrote.
Miller, the acting CBP commissioner, said officials will attempt to tamp down the surge with “enhanced expedited removal” — a fast-track deportation process for those who don’t qualify for humanitarian refuge.
But, he cautioned, “it will take time” for deportations to have a deterrent effect.
The Biden administration has a new enforcement tool that it’s preparing to wield: new measures making it easier for the government to deport migrants making asylum claims. Migrants who cross the border illegally or fail to apply for protection in other countries they cross on their way to the U.S. border would face a presumption of being ineligible for asylum, according to the proposed rule.
Mayorkas said the administration was still evaluating public comments about the proposed rule but that he expected it to take effect before May 11. He also said the Biden administration has yet to decide whether to resume detaining migrant parents and children who arrive as part of a family group — a practice DHS ended in 2021.
Mayorkas and other Biden officials say they are working with other nations in the region to manage migration at a time of mass displacement. Mayorkas recently traveled to Panama, and CBP officials have been deployed to work alongside Panamanian and Colombia security forces on a 60-day campaign that will try to stop migrants from trekking a notorious jungle trail through the Darien Gap.
Biden officials have discussed establishing processing centers in Guatemala and Colombia for asylum seekers, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.
Administration officials have pledged to boost refugee processing for Central and South American applicants.
“It is very important to build lawful pathways for individuals to be able to access humanitarian relief in the United States so that they do not need to take the dangerous journey to the United States,” Mayorkas said, describing the administration’s general approach. “Our model is to build lawful pathways and then to impose the consequences that the law provides on those who do not avail themselves of those pathways.”
Mayorkas appeared before lawmakers Tuesday and Wednesday during acrimonious committee hearings where GOP members angrily denounced the secretary in personal terms and threatened to seek his impeachment. Republicans have little chance of removing him because they would need a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which Democrats control.
GOP members appeared to launch a new line of attack against Mayorkas by citing recent reports that thousands of underage migrants who have arrived without parents during Biden’s tenure are working low-wage jobs at meatpacking plants, farms and construction sites.
Unaccompanied minors have arrived in record numbers since Biden exempted them from the Title 42 restrictions. The Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for making sure they are released to family members or a vetted sponsor.
Mayorkas said that he has ordered the formation of a new task force aimed at preventing labor exploitation of minors, and that stopping exploitation would become a new core mission of the department, which was created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.