WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday that the U.S. is expected to reach the highest number of people apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in two decades.
“We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years. We are expelling most single adults and families. We are not expelling unaccompanied children,” Mayorkas said in a statement addressing what he described as a “difficult” situation at the border.
“Our goal is a safe, legal and orderly immigration system that is based on our bedrock priorities: to keep our borders secure, address the plight of children as the law requires, and enable families to be together,” he said.
Mayorkas explained that the majority of people apprehended at the southwest border are single adults, and they are “currently being expelled under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s authority to manage the public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Single adults from Mexico, and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras “are swiftly expelled to Mexico,” Mayorkas said. Similarly, families apprehended at the border who came from Mexico or those other countries are being expelled to Mexico “unless Mexico does not have the capacity to receive the families,” he said.
“Mexico’s limited capacity has strained our resources, including in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas,” he said. “When Mexico’s capacity is reached, we process the families and place them in immigration proceedings here in the United States.”
Mayorkas said the U.S. is encountering many children at the southwest border each day who are not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Part of the problem, he said, is that the Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t have the capacity to take in the current number of children they’re encountering.
Republicans have accused the current administration of creating a “crisis” at the border, saying Biden’s relaxing of some immigration policies have incentivized people to try to cross into the U.S. illegally.
But the homeland security secretary blamed the surge at the border on poverty, high levels of violence and corruption in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries. He also attributed the high numbers to the Trump administration, which he said “completely dismantled the asylum system.”
“The system was gutted, facilities were closed, and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers,” said Mayorkas, who added that the Biden administration has had to rebuild the system.
Mayorkas said the U.S. is building new facilities to increase its capacity, working with Mexico to receive expelled families, and developing a more formal refugee program.
“We are creating joint processing centers so that children can be placed in HHS care immediately after Border Patrol encounters them,” he said. “We are also identifying and equipping additional facilities for HHS to shelter unaccompanied children until they are placed with family or sponsors. These are short-term solutions to address the surge of unaccompanied children.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is setting up two facilities in Texas to handle the influx of unaccompanied minors. One, the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, will hold up to 3,000 unaccompanied teenage migrant boys, two U.S. officials told NBC News. The other will be a camp in Midland. Health and Human Services will run both sites. Children would arrive at the centers from border processing facilities and then be transferred to relatives or other sponsors.
“FEMA is supporting the Department of Health and Human Services’ response to the arrival of unaccompanied children at the southwest border” and is “actively engaged with HHS to quickly expand capacity for safe and appropriate shelter, and to provide food, water and basic medical care.” a DHS spokesperson said.
The Associated Press first reported the conversion of the Dallas convention center to help alleviate the overcrowding at the border processing facilities.
Julia Ainsley and Jacob Soboroff contributed.