The U.S. Homeland Security chief Sunday pledged to use existing U.S. immigration laws to process thousands of migrants expected to try to cross its southwestern border with Mexico starting May 12. That is when President Joe Biden’s administration ends its use of a law linked to the coronavirus pandemic to quickly expel undocumented arrivals for health reasons.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NBC’s “Meet the Press” show that when families arrive at the border, they “will be placed in immigration enforcement proceedings, removal proceedings. If they make a claim for relief, we will adjudicate that claim for relief swiftly.”
He said the outcome of the cases of the migrants seeking to remain in the United States could be resolved in “days or weeks. It is not going to [require] months and months,” and would be heard by immigration officials ahead of the backlog of 2 million existing immigration cases waiting to be settled in the U.S.
Mayorkas said if an unaccompanied child arrives at the border, “We follow the law and the law provides that we take custody of that child and we have 72 hours within which to transfer that child, that unaccompanied child, to the Department of Health and Human Services.”
“Then it is for the Department of Health and Human Services … to identify a relative or a sponsor in the United States, to whom they can transfer care of that child.” Mayorkas said. “We have, the law provides, for humanitarian relief for these children and we enforce that law.”
More than 2.4 million migrants have arrived at the U.S. border in the last year, many from Central American countries, but also from Caribbean nations, Africa, Ukraine and elsewhere. Many have been turned away, while others have escaped into the U.S. interior or assigned immigration court dates months and years into the future and released into the U.S.
Mayorkas laid out the scope of the problem facing the U.S. as migrants, many escaping poverty and political persecution in their homelands, attempt to flee to the world’s wealthiest country and a better life.
“This is a really tough challenge and has been, as we all recognize, for years and years,” Mayorkas said. “We are seeing a level of migration not just at our southern border, but throughout the hemisphere, that is unprecedented.”
“It is, I think, the greatest migration in our hemisphere since World War II,” he added.
When the coronavirus pandemic was deemed a widespread threat, U.S. law gave U.S. border officials the authority to quickly expel those crossing the Mexican-U.S. border to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. But those denied entry at the border often tried again and again to get into the United States, with no legal consequence.
Biden officials tried to end use of the coronavirus provision to keep out migrants to utilize the country’s normal migration laws, which calls for violators to be barred for five years from readmission to the U.S. But attorneys general in Republican-controlled states won court rulings that continued the health care-related migration decision until May 11.
As a result, a new influx of migrants is expected starting May 12, even as existing migrant shelters in border towns and elsewhere in such large U.S. cities as New York and Chicago are overcrowded.
“Our approach is to build lawful pathways, cut out the ruthless smugglers, deliver lawful pathways so people can access humanitarian relief without having to take the dangerous journey from their home countries,” Mayorkas said. “And at the same time, if they arrive at our southern border in between ports of entry, we will deliver consequences.”
But he readily acknowledged “a broken immigration system” in the U.S., with Congress failing for decades to reform its migration laws.
“I just want to be clear that we are working within significant constraints,” he said. “We need people, we need technology, we need facilities, we need transportation resources, all of the elements of addressing the needs of a large population of people arriving irregularly at our southern border.”