As El Paso struggled Tuesday to cope with a growing migrant influx, the U.S. Homeland Security secretary visited the city and said the nation’s immigration and asylum systems were “broken.”
Alejandro Mayorkas met with Border Patrol agents, local government officials and nongovernmental organizations providing services to migrants. He spoke for about 15 minutes with reporters for KTEP public radio, El Paso Matters and the El Paso Times to talk about the ongoing challenges and the end of Title 42, a public health law that has been used since early 2020 to expel many migrants without giving them an opportunity to apply for asylum. A federal judge has ruled the program must end Dec. 21.
Mayorkas gave few specifics of how the Biden administration planned to address the soaring number of migrants arriving at the border. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Question: We're already seeing huge numbers of people crossing and some of the stress and strain on local resources. So what would you want to say about the preparations for the end of Title 42?
Mayorkas: So we've been preparing since late last year for the end of Title 42. I think it was in April of this year that we published an outline of all of our planning to give confidence to the American public that we indeed will be prepared for the end of Title 42. That's what we do in the Department of Homeland Security. We are operational, we prepare for different scenarios and execute accordingly. (Sunday), of course, El Paso experienced a very significant influx by essentially a caravan of buses and we've been working immediately thereafter with our partners to the south with Mexico to ensure that doesn't happen again.
Q: Do you expect there to be any new limits on asylum for migrants whether that's by nationality or a different process in place other than arriving at the border?
Mayorkas: So we believe in the asylum system, we've worked very, very hard to reconstruct it after it was dismantled by the prior administration. There are a lot of discussions about different ideas and how to address the number of encounters that we're experiencing at the border. No decisions have been made. But one of the things that we're very devoted to and we've been devoted to since the very outset of this administration is not only rebuilding our asylum system, rebuilding our refugee processes, rebuilding much of legal immigration, but also building lawful, safe, orderly humane pathways. So individuals who are desperate do not feel that they must place their lives, their life savings, in the hands of smugglers who only exploit them for profit.
Q: Can you elaborate on discussions with Mexico or other programs that you're considering to manage that?
Mayorkas: So the reality is that the challenge that we're experiencing at the border is not exclusive to our border. I was just in Ecuador and Colombia this past week, and they were speaking of the challenges that they themselves face. In Colombia, for example, they cited the fact that they have 2.5 million Venezuelans in the country. And so what we're experiencing is a challenge of migration throughout the hemisphere, throughout the region, and it requires a regional solution. And we really kicked that off most forcefully, I think, at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Subsequent to that, we've been speaking with our partners in a bilateral and multilateral context. Because a regional challenge requires partnership and a regional solution.
Q: Any specifics?
Mayorkas: I think it'd be premature because no specific plans have been determined.
Q: Do you have a date for announcing those specific plans for ending Title 42 that would expand upon the six-point plan from April based on new developments?
Mayorkas: So we're mindful of the fact that Title 42 is going to end early next week. We're also mindful of the fact that we have to coordinate with our partners, not just the nonprofit organizations with which we work very closely, not just cities along the border, like El Paso, but also our international partners. So we're moving as quickly as we can. These are very important decisions. They're very complex. The migration challenge is very, very complex. So we're moving as quickly as we can.
Q: Any thoughts of standing up something like for the Afghan refugees to manage huge numbers of other migrants or asylum seekers here, maybe at Fort Bliss?
Mayorkas: So no decision has been made. We're looking at a whole host of things. One of the options that of course we're taking a look at is the success with our program for Venezuelans that we've built on our success for Ukrainians. How can we build a lawful pathway for individuals so that they don't have to traverse dangerous terrain in the hands of smugglers, but rather, we can prequalify them if you will. We can vet and screen them beforehand, assess their eligibility, and then have them travel safely to the United States to ports of entry in the interior by plane, which is what we've seen in a tremendously successful program for Venezuelans.
Q: What would you want to tell people away from the border who see these images of people just walking across wading across the river and say “it's out of control”?
Mayorkas: Well, remember, what we are seeing is people who are claiming asylum. And we see them surrendering themselves to Border Patrol to assert their claims for humanitarian relief, as our laws provide. And what I would say is, so be mindful of that, number one, but quite frankly, it's an extraordinarily powerful picture of why we need our immigration system reformed through legislation. Our asylum system is broken. Our immigration system as a whole is broken. It hasn't been updated or reformed in more than 40 years. We look to our partner to the north that has a much more nimble immigration system that can be retooled to the needs at the moment. For example, Canada is in need of 1 million workers and they have agreed that in 2023, they will admit 1.4 million … immigrants to fill that labor need that Canadians themselves cannot. We are stuck in antiquated laws that do not meet our current needs. And they haven't been working for many, many years.