Republican members of Congress took the opportunity of a hearing with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Wednesday to resurface by-now-very-familiar talking points about illegal immigration — talking points that tend to resurface around elections or whenever Democrats hold the White House in office.
The House Homeland Security Committee held the hearing, in which Mayorkas spent the majority of his time addressing issues around the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Republicans used the hearing to claim that Biden was responsible for it, with one member going so far as to suggest that it was due to the “cartels” that planned to send millions more immigrants north.
Seeds planted long ago
Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ) sought to draw a direct line between President Biden assuming office and a flood of immigrants rushing the border.
“Quite frankly, two months ago, we didn’t have problems,” Van Drew said, suggesting that policies under President Donald Trump that had been reversed by Biden within days of his inauguration had vastly contributed to the border surge.
“I look at two month ago and we had a certain situation, we were under control and I look now with people crossing the border illegally in much larger numbers with shirts with our president’s name on it — that means something,” he said.
Van Drew’s rosy assessment of illegal immigration during the Trump administration appeared to gloss over a similar surge that occurred under Trump in 2019 — and what Mayorkas described as a longstanding history of “episodic surges” over many years that have occurred during both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Pushing back on efforts to lay blame on Biden, Mayorkas pointed out that a side-by-side comparison of unaccompanied children at the border in recent weeks is “slightly greater” than a similar spike seen in 2019. The DHS secretary added that the volume of individual family units crossing the border was “far greater” in 2019 than it is in 2021.
Van Drew’s suggestion of the novelty of the immigration spike also appeared to turn a blind eye to how a number of Trump policies had also played a role in prompting the surge witnessed in recent months, including cutting humanitarian assistance meant to address the root causes of migration from Central America. In 2019, Trump had announced plans to cut off aid to three nations — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, diverting $450 million in aid from the region.
In 2017, Trump also ended an Obama-era program aimed at responding to a massive spike in the number of unaccompanied minors and families entering the country illegally from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that allowed a “parole” if they failed to win refugee status and had a parent already legally present in the country.
Clay Higgins loses it
Near the hearing’s start however, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) set the tone for the minority by screaming at Mayorkas about the crisis at the border, interrupting him before accusing the DHS secretary of failing to answer his questions.
Higgins began by calling the hearing “nauseating,” before launching into a conspiracy theory.
“My sources tell me that they’re coming now, and they’re coming through the year,” Higgins proclaimed of illegal immigration, before adding that “the cartels have two million in the pipeline” while asserting that the 2019 surge in undocumented immigrants was because Mexican drug cartels were “paying attention to the election cycle in 2018 when the Democrats took the majority.”
Higgins then asked Mayorkas whether the world was undergoing a pandemic.
As Mayorkas began to reply “of course,” Higgins interrupted to ask whether migrants were being tested. After Mayorkas said yes and offered to explain the process, Higgins began to accuse the DHS secretary of refusing to respond.
“To me, I think the American people are witnessing a question dodged,” Higgins said.
He later added: “I don’t think I’m gonna get a straight answer from you.”
He then asked whether Biden administration policies had increased illegal crossings, and whether the “cartels” had paid attention to Biden’s immigration platform during the campaign.
“Do you think the cartels heard that?” Higgins asked.
As Mayorkas began to reply, Higgins again interrupted with a “my goodness.”
“I don’t appreciate you dodging my questions,” Higgins concluded.
Republicans blame immigrants for COVID
Higgins’s rant set the stage for another brand of fear-mongering about migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border: that they’re carrying COVID-19. Higgins was enraged at the idea that the government may not be rigorously testing migrants, while others railed against the prospect of migrants carrying the virus with them as they travel northwards.
Rep. Van Drew echoed the theme, saying that “many are not even being tested for COVID-19, while being released, which is mind boggling.”
Mayorkas said that he disagreed with the premise of the question. He later explained that DHS either tests people through community organizations that receive migrants, thorough states, or by using newly appropriated federal funds to contract with a vendor that would test migrants for COVID while they’re in CBP custody.
Of course, the U.S. has enough COVID-19 spreading within its borders already.
The head of FEMA said on Tuesday that the COVID positivity rate of arriving migrants was 6 percent — lower than that of Texas, the state through which the majority of migrants enter the United States.