Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told senators on Thursday that in the midst of a surge of migrants trying to enter the U.S., the number of unaccompanied minors in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody continues to fall dramatically.
The total number of young migrants in Border Patrol custody has fallen from nearly 6,000 in late March to 455 as of Tuesday, Mayorkas told a Senate panel in testimony. And the number of children in custody for longer than 72 hours has also fallen from 4,078 to zero in the same period.
The efforts follow a change by the Biden administration to allow the children to be moved to facilities under the Department of Health and Human Services rather than DHS. The HHS shelters more closely resemble dorms, with bunk beds and educational programs, than the warehouse-like facilities that the Border Patrol manages. On March 13, Mayorkas directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist with the new plan.
"The challenge is not behind us, but the results are dramatic," Mayorkas told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The figures provide one of the latest snapshots of the Biden administration's efforts to gain control of what Republicans and others have called a crisis caused by President Biden's policies as a surge of migrants is seen at the U.S.-Mexico border. Some Democrats have disputed those claims, arguing that Biden and his officials are attempting to address a problem the Trump administration left behind.
"That's what you inherited, and you had to work pretty quickly to try to build it and expand HHS capacity in order to transfer minors," said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
At its peak, CBP reported 5,767 unaccompanied children in its custody in late March. Last week, Mayorkas told reporters that figure had fallen 88% to 677 by May 2, reporting the further gains to lawmakers on Thursday.
Also, the average time in custody for these children has fallen from 133 hours to 22 hours by Tuesday, Mayorkas said, as 18,000 minors encountered CBP during the month of April.
However, Republicans on the panel were skeptical of the results.
"I'm glad that Customs and Border Protection has moved children to HHS, again, but these children have only been moved from one federal agency to another," Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the panel's ranking Republican, told Mayorkas.
Mayorkas noted, however, that the improvements are but one step that is part of a larger plan. He said three key steps include addressing the root causes driving migrants from the Northern Triangle area in Central America, building legal pathways for children to gain U.S. residency before they make the journey and finally making changes to the immigration system.
Like Portman, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin disputed Mayorkas' and Democrats' assertions that the Trump administration was to blame. Rather, they said the previous president was able to stop earlier surges at the border from reaching levels seen this year.
Johnson also argued CBP is not currently able to issue a "notice to appear" to certain migrants to force removal, an assertion that Mayorkas denied.
"This is as close to open borders as we can possibly have," argued Johnson, who cut off Mayorkas at several times during the hearing and could be heard off mic continuing to raise concerns.
Republicans have remained largely focused on Biden's executive actions that they blame for the surge. One of these ended a Trump program requiring asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico as they await cases. Republican lawmakers have said these efforts sent a message that the border was "open."
GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri told Mayorkas that he should be held to account, referring to the secretary's previous statements about access to the border. In March, Mayorkas told reporters that the message to migrants was not don't come, but rather "don't come now."
"Don't you think you bear any responsibility for the current crisis by telling the world the border is open?" Hawley told Mayorkas in one of the hearing's sharper exchanges.
"Senator, I have never said that the border is open," Mayorkas replied. "And I never believed that it should be an open border. We have laws that Congress has passed that are laws of accountability and also laws of humanitarian belief."