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Republican senators grill DHS chief over border security

Senate Judiciary Committee members press Mayorkas over fentanyl, migrants and 'operational control'

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing Tuesday.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Judiciary Republicans accused Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday of having lost control of the southwest border and suggested he apologize to families who lost loved ones to fentanyl poisoning.

During the DHS chief’s first appearance before Congress this session, the senators, in a contentious hearing, drilled into Mayorkas over his handling of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, which reached record levels last year.

Several pressed Mayorkas to answer whether he believes his department has “operational control” over the southwest border, which is defined by a 2006 law as “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States.”

Their questions came two weeks after U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz told a House committee that, under that definition, the administration did not have operational control.

Mayorkas responded that the U.S. is “intensely focused on securing the border” but that he doesn’t use that statutory definition.

“By that definition, no administration has ever had operational control,” Mayorkas said. “So the way I define it is maximizing the resources that we have to deliver the most effective results, and we are indeed doing that.”

Mayorkas also emphasized that migrants seeking asylum and fentanyl seizures at ports of entry should be treated as separate issues.

Testy exchanges

But Senate Republicans expressed how they were not moved, resulting in several testy exchanges.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, loudly questioned the secretary about how many migrants allowed into the U.S. were rapists and how many children were sold into sex slavery. “You’re willing to let children be raped to follow political orders,” Cruz said.

Cruz also told Mayorkas that the deaths and assaults of children are “are at your feet” and called on him to resign.

Mayorkas, when Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., gave him a chance to respond, said that what Cruz said was “revolting” and refused to respond to it. Cruz then retorted: “Your refusal to do your job is revolting.”

When Sen. John Cornyn asked about fentanyl coming over the border, Mayorkas started to say that 90 percent of fentanyl is seized at ports of entry and checkpoints, not carried by migrants in between the ports.

But Cornyn interrupted him and shot back, “That’s a totally made-up number, Mr. Secretary, and you know it.”

The Texas Republican also asked Mayorkas if he wanted to apologize to parents whose children died of fentanyl poisoning.

Several senators also accused Mayorkas of evading their questions, as they demanded “yes or no” responses on the state of the border.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, called Mayorkas’ definition of operational control “an intentional effort to obfuscate the real problem, to hide the absolute humanitarian and legal disaster we have unfolding on our southern border.”

Lee also signaled he would support House Republicans’ efforts to impeach Mayorkas over his approach to the border.

Busy week

In response to Republican attacks, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said Mayorkas “is proud to advance the noble mission of this Department, support its extraordinary workforce, and serve the American people.”

“Instead of pointing fingers, Congress should work with the Department and pass legislation to fix our broken immigration system, which has not been updated in over 40 years,” the spokesperson said.

Durbin, in his opening remarks, said that only Congress “can actually fix our broken immigration system” and called on his Senate colleagues “to look in the mirror.” At the end of the hearing, the Illinois Democrat apologized to Mayorkas on behalf of senators who he said were not respectful.

Tuesday’s hearing kicked off a busy week for Mayorkas on Capitol Hill. Mayorkas is also slated to appear before the House and Senate appropriations committees on Wednesday to defend the Biden administration’s budget request for DHS.

Mayorkas has faced heat from both congressional Republicans and Democrats over the Biden administration’s border policies.

House and Senate Democrats urged the administration in letters this week not to reinstate migrant family detention, following reports that the policy was under consideration. Asked at the Tuesday hearing by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal about the state of that policy idea, Mayorkas responded that “no decision has been made.”

Congressional Democrats have also criticized the administration’s proposed rule to limit asylum eligibility for migrants who passed through another country en route to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democratic Sens. Alex Padilla of California, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and other senators submitted a public comment on Monday opposing the proposed restrictions and warning the rule “violates our legal obligations to protect refugees fleeing persecution.”

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