US homeland security head defends Biden immigration policies

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged the US was "on pace" to encounter more migrants at the border than at any time in two decades, but said such spikes were "not new", having also occurred in 2019, 2014 and earlier.

In this file photo taken on January 19, 2021, Alejandro Mayorkas, nominee to be Secretary of Homeland Security, testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Picture: Joshua Roberts/AFP.

WASHINGTON - The head of the US Department of Homeland Security defended President Joe Biden's immigration policies Tuesday, following criticism over a surge in migrants - including thousands of unaccompanied children - arriving at the southern border with Mexico.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged the US was "on pace" to encounter more migrants at the border than at any time in two decades, but said such spikes were "not new", having also occurred in 2019, 2014 and earlier.

"The situation we are currently facing at the southwest border is a difficult one," Mayorkas said in a statement.

READ: Race against the clock to build Trump's us-Mexican border wall

"We are keeping our borders secure, enforcing our laws, and staying true to our values and principles."

On 20 January, his first day in office, Biden scrapped several of Donald Trump's contentious immigration policies, including halting the new construction of a border wall and proposing legislation to create a citizenship pathway for the nearly 11 million people living illegally in the US.

Republican critics say Biden's policies caused a sharp increase in migrants seeking to cross into the US illegally.

READ MORE: Biden begins dismantling Trump's 'remain in Mexico' asylum policy

Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy of California, who heads his party in the House of Representatives, visited the border in Texas with fellow Republican lawmakers Monday and accused Biden of creating a "crisis."

Mayorkas said the rise in unaccompanied children - some as young as six or seven - comes from ending policies of former President Trump, whose administration "cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers."

"They are vulnerable children and we have ended the prior administration's practice of expelling them," he said.

The Biden administration continues to expel most single adults and people travelling in families.

In February, the US Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) arrested about 100,000 people at the southern border - including nearly 9,500 unaccompanied children - a 28% jump over January.

Mayorkas blasted the Trump administration for having cut aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras meant to tackle the root causes of migration such as violence and the impacts of natural disasters.

Holding facilities for apprehended migrants are crowded, Mayorkas said, noting authorities had not "had the capacity to intake the number of unaccompanied children we have been encountering."

Complicating conditions, pandemic-related physical distancing protocols have further reduced space, said Mayorkas, who has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help activate additional facilities.

Cuban-born Mayorkas said his parents, who brought him to the US as an infant, "understood the hope and promise of America."

"Today, young children are arriving at our border with that same hope," he said. "We can do this."

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