May 7, 2021
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas Briefing on Immigration Reform Transcript
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas gave a briefing on immigration reform from the US southern border on May 7, 2021. Read the transcript of the briefing here.
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Secretary Mayorkas: (00:01)
Good morning. Thank you for joining us this morning here. On March 28th across the border, we had 5,767 children in the custody of the United States Border Patrol. They were in a Border Patrol custody for an average of 133 hours. At this facility specifically, on April 2nd, we had more than 4,300 individuals, and of those approximately 3,700 were unaccompanied children and they were here for an average of 139 hours. When our administration began, we inherited a system that had been torn down and dismantled and I said at the time in late March that we have a plan to address the challenge of the unaccompanied children who were apprehended along the border, that the plan would take time to execute and it would be difficult to do so. But this is what we do. We do the difficult work and we know how to do it.
Secretary Mayorkas: (01:31)
Today, there are approximately 700 children in Border Patrol custody along the border, and they are in the Border Patrol custody for an average of 26 hours. Today, at this facility, rather than approximately 3,700 unaccompanied children, there are 334. Rather than a custody period of approximately 139 hours, they are here for approximately 24 hours. There are several reasons why we have accomplished such a dramatic change in addition to the plan that we’re executing. And that is because of the people who are executing that plan. Chief Hastings of the United States Border Patrol here at Donna and the men and women whom he leads, and the men and women of the United States Border Patrol across the entire border, the men and women of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, who have lent such extraordinary skill and dedication, to the mission to the men and women at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who have also lent their expertise and resources to the mission. And, of course, our partners at Health and Human Services and across the government.
Secretary Mayorkas: (03:10)
The President directed an all of government approach to meet the challenge and we certainly have accomplished that. The challenge remains. It is not behind us, but our plan of execution is well underway and the results are compelling. The border remains closed, and as a part of our all of government effort, we are not only addressing the needs of the unaccompanied children pursuant to the law, but we are also addressing every other element of that challenge, including the smuggling organizations that exploit vulnerable children, vulnerable families and individuals, and who prioritize profit over people. I announced a number of days ago, Operation Sentinel, which is in all of government and all of the Department of Homeland Security effort to combat the human smuggling or organizations that exploit the vulnerable individuals before they arrive here in Border Patrol custody.
Secretary Mayorkas: (04:23)
We are also executing on the President and the Vice President’s direction, not only to build back, but to build back better. We have re-engineered the process for the treatment of unaccompanied children, the transfer of them to Health and Human Services shelters, where they belong. They do not belong in a Border Patrol station. As I said at the very outset, a Border Patrol station is no place for a child, but the children belong in the shelter of Health and Human Services and in the care of Health and Human Services as they are being united with their parents, their relatives, and their legal sponsors here in the United States. And we are re-engineering that process and so we are building back better. Fundamentally, we are also executing the President’s three part strategy and the Vice President’s three part strategy. We are going to be addressing the root causes of irregular migration and working in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Secretary Mayorkas: (05:44)
We are going to be building legal pathways so individuals’ parents do not feel compelled to place their children in the hands of the exploiting smuggling organizations. We will build legal processes for them to come here to the United States when they are qualified to do so under the laws that Congress has passed, and with respect to the passing of law, and critically, we are committed to passing immigration reform. There is unanimous agreement that our immigration system is broken and immigration reform is desperately needed. And I am here today as I have been previously, but I am joined today with leaders who are seeking to achieve that much needed reform. And it is my privilege to introduce Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard. Thank you.
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard: (06:49)
Thank you very much. I’m Congresswoman Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard from California, and I am the Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee for the Department of Homeland Security, and I came here with that perspective. I came here to see, first of all, from the perspective of where we were, where we are today, and what it is that we’re looking towards as we look into the future. And these are some of my observations of which I’ve taken notes, which is one thing that is very, very positive, that now the way that programs are being developed, they’re being developed by evidence based guidelines, and that is something that is absolutely critical to ensure that the detainees and the children are being treated fairly humanely and based again on evidence.
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard: (07:58)
Also, one of the things that was missing in the past that is very, very positive and one of the reasons that we’re seeing some of the results we are and being able to move detainees more quickly is that there is now coordination that did not exist between Border Patrol, between ORR, and other agencies that were responsible like with FEMA, that are now working together to develop the process in which these children of the detainees now are going to be able to move, and the fact that through these coordinating efforts, the medical needs of these children and the detainees, the children are being evaluated and receiving the care that they need as they are processed through. Also, another improvement, again, that has to do with the coordination of these agencies is case management.
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard: (09:01)
The case management now with the processing, the removal of some of the barriers, and the unifying of children is moving much more smoothly, because of the fact that under the Secretary’s guidance we now have these coordinated efforts between the various agencies that did not exist. So there still needs to be a lot more done as we look forward, but the fact is that there are now studies being made, there are evaluations being made, and as Border Patrol was saying, many of the things that they are doing now are lessons learned from what had happened in the past. And so under the leadership of the Secretary, we are seeing now that we are moving forward towards a humane way of dealing with immigrants, with our children, and doing everything that we can to be able to unite them with family members here in the United States.
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard: (10:14)
So those are some of the positive things that are happening, but I do want to say, yes, we still have more work to do, but the good news is that under the leadership of the Secretary, those things are being identified and we are moving towards making the improvements that are needed in the future. I now want to introduce my colleague, Linda Sanchez, and I want to point out that we’re never going to solve all these issues unless we deal with a comprehensive immigration system, something that really works. Because right now our immigration system is broken. And, as you know, President Biden has put forward his immigration plan and he has asked Linda Sanchez, my colleague, to take the lead on this bill. And so it is now my privilege to have her come to the microphone.
Congresswoman Linda Sanchez: (11:17)
Thank you, Lucille. And I want to thank my colleagues that have joined us on this tour today. They are warriors in making sure that our country is doing what we need to do at the border, that we remain a country of laws, but a country that treats immigrants humanely. They are warriors in the battle to fix our broken immigration system and to make our country a better place that’s instilled in the American values that we all cherish. Secretary Mayorkas, big thank you for inviting us out to tour the facility today. I know that it’s been a tough road for you, because you inherited a system that had quite frankly been dismantled by the previous administration. And I know that we’re not going to be able to fix four years of damage in just four months, but we are well on our way, and we saw today that they are making significant progress in a very short period of time.
Congresswoman Linda Sanchez: (12:16)
Families are being reunited. That’s good news. As a mom of a young son, I can’t imagine how difficult the decision is for parents to send their children north on a dangerous journey just to find safety and security. The past administration with its policies of chaos and cruelty separated families and created additional traumas that these kids face. I think it bears repeating again and again and again that we are not going to fix irregular migration until we fix our broken immigration system. We need a new immigration system that matches the challenges that we encounter today and that keeps our values as a nation of immigrants, and that’s why I’m humbled and honored that President Biden has asked me to introduce the U.S. Citizenship Act in Congress and to shepherd the bill through the process of getting it passed out of the House.
Congresswoman Linda Sanchez: (13:27)
It’s interesting when I talk to my colleagues, because I’m in the process of educating people about what’s in the bill about the things that are going to help us once and for all fix our legal immigration system and allow a pathway to earn citizenship for 11 million undocumented people that are living and working in the United States, many of whom got us through the pandemic. And when I educate my colleagues about the fact that the U.S. Citizenship Act for the first time seeks to address the root causes that force people to make that dangerous journey north, we can talk about and have a productive discussion about ending those cyclical flows. Because unless we get at those root causes, we’re going to continue to see those surges in immigration. So although we are well on our path towards trying to inject more humanity into our system in terms of reuniting families, treating them better when we process them, it’s a long road ahead.
Congresswoman Linda Sanchez: (14:37)
But, again, I have no better group of colleagues to embark on that mission with than the women that you see standing with me today. And it’s not an accident that they’re women. You want something done, ask busy women to get it done. So with that, I’d love to introduce one of the warriors in this battle, a fellow Congresswoman from the great state of California, and Nannette Farrakhan.
Congresswoman Nanette Barragán: (15:08)
Thank you. I’ll take this thing off. I’m Congress Member Barragán from south Los Angeles. I serve as the Chair of the Border Subcommittee on the U.S. House Homeland Committee. I was here three weeks ago, and when I was here three weeks ago, there was about 2200 individuals in this facility. And coming back today to see the remarkable difference, the numbers have declined significantly. And here’s why this is important. As the Secretary mentioned, having individuals in this facility is not ideal. It’s ideal to have kids and families with their family members. It’s ideal to have kids and families with a bed, to have family to love and be around them. This is a temporary area where they come to get to their family, and so when I came here three weeks ago, we saw more number of individuals, quite a bit lot more, it was 2200 versus what we’re at now.
Congresswoman Nanette Barragán: (16:16)
The number of hours that people were here were a lot longer. Today, I had a chance to speak to some families and to some kids. What was remarkable was hearing from the kids when you asked them, “How long have you been here?” In the past, we had heard, “Days, many days.” Today, it was under 24 hours. There wasn’t anybody here who had said they had been here for multiple days, which I thought was real remarkable. So Mr. Secretary, that is a huge accomplishment. Under the prior administration, we never ever heard the kids, especially at the height of the numbers that we have been seeing, have been outside of Border Patrol custody. And the men and the women of the Border Patrol will tell you, they’re not in the business of taking care of kids. They’re in the business of law enforcement, protecting the border.
Congresswoman Nanette Barragán: (17:13)
And so it’s in the interest, not only of these children, but our country to move these kids out of Border Patrol custody as quickly as possible. And I’ve seen today, that improvement was just huge. The last thing I just want to note, the last time I was here three weeks ago, when I spoke to kids and individuals, I did a little survey and I said, “How many of you here have made a telephone call?” Only a few hands went up. I said, “How many of you here want to make a telephone call?” And nearly all the hands went up. And many of the kids then didn’t know they could make a phone call. So I very nicely said, “Well, maybe we can put signs up.” So today you can walk into the facility and there is a sign that has photos that tells these kids what they can ask for. A phone call, food, formula.
Congresswoman Nanette Barragán: (18:04)
It’s great to see that the administration and the Secretary and the team here on the ground is willing to listen on where there needs to be an improvement, because there it’s so critical. When you come here, think about this for a second, you’re an eight year old child. You’re afraid. You’re separated from your family. Your parents are in another country. What do you want to do? You want to call somebody? You want to hear a familiar voice. And so today we’ve seen that change. Everybody I spoke to today, every single person I spoke to today, I asked them the same question, “Have you made a phone call?” And the answer was, “Yes.” And I said, “Did you know you can make a phone call?” “Yes.” So that’s another huge change that I saw that I think means a lot to these families.
Congresswoman Nanette Barragán: (18:53)
So there is clearly still more work to do, but we are on the road. I’ve seen the progress in just this short three weeks. So thank you to the entire administration, to the Secretary, and to the men and women who are on the ground making this happen. The Border Patrol and CBP, everybody who’s working together. And so with that, it’s my honor to introduce my colleague from Texas, Veronica Escobar. My other colleague from Texas, Sylvia Garcia.
Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia: (19:27)
Well, the good news is that Veronica Escobar and I are like compadres, we’re almost joined at the hip. We got elected together, made history together, for being the first two Latinas ever elected from Texas. So, first of all, for those of you who are not from Texas, Secretary Mayorkas, welcome to Texas. And let me just say that what a difference 100 days make. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I have been visiting sites like this since I was a State Senator, because the first surge happened at that time. I’ve visited sites that are private and for-profit. I’ve visited some that are run by faith based organizations. Some that they’re not. I’ve visited sites in Georgia, Florida, New Mexico, and here in Texas and I can tell you that what you’ve done here in the last, let’s see, you were struggled with this about the beginning of February. It’s just absolutely remarkable. The numbers speak for themselves.
Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia: (20:32)
Representative [inaudible 00:20:33] mentioned it 2,300? 2200 when she was here just a few weeks ago, and we’re down to less than 400 children here. So I just want to make sure that you all fully digest that. That’s a huge change. And to see that they’re getting the services that they need. And like the Secretary said, I agree with him, nobody wants a child in detention. Nobody. The big difference here is that these children were not removed crudely from the arms of their children. These children arrived and presented at the border unaccompanied. It’s a huge difference, but we’re providing the support, we’re providing what they need, and more importantly, we’re working from day one on reuniting them with their families. Let’s be mindful that Sunday is Mother’s Day. Sunday is Mother’s Day. Someone in Guatemala, someone in El Salvador, someone in Honduras, somewhere there’s a mother wondering where her child is.
Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia: (21:41)
Our job is to make sure to assure that mother and all mothers around the world that when they migrate to the United States of America that we will treat them with dignity and respect and with care, just like we would hope that our children who go somewhere to another country would be treated. And I know that for me the numbers that make the biggest difference is the change that we have made in placing the children with their family members. Remember the numbers, 80% of the children who come unaccompanied have a family member here in the United States. It could be a father. It could be a mother. It could be an aunt or an uncle. We will reunite them. That is the highest priority. If I had anything else, Mr. Secretary, that I would ask you to do, and we’ve talked about it already, is to embed social workers here immediately to start working on that case work, doing the social private profile, talking to the children about how to locate their family member so that we can reunite them as quickly as possible.
Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia: (22:46)
Those are the numbers that I wanted to make sure that get better. I think we’re doing really, really well, but as the Secretary mentioned, we’re building back better. And the way to really measure that is when we reunite children with their family here. With that, I’ll close and I’ll pass the mic now to my comadre from the great state of Texas, Veronica Escobar.
Conresswoman Veronica Escobar: (23:13)
Thank you, comadre. [foreign language 00:23:18].