“I will share with you how I define a crisis. A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a 9-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future migration. That to me is a humanitarian crisis,” Mayorkas said.
The US Department of Health and Human Services has not had the capacity to take the number of unaccompanied children encountered at the border. Federal law requires unaccompanied children to be turned over within 72 hours to HHS, which oversees a shelter network designed to house minors.
Asked about how old the youngest child was that came into custody by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Mayorkas said: “There are children, congressman, who are infants to the age of five, that come into the border. I confronted a situation of three young siblings, under the ages of 10. The youngest one being 2 years of age, whose mother didn’t make it.”
Mayorkas declined to say whether he was surprised by the spike in arrests on the US southern border.
“I don’t know that I had any particular expectation one way or the other. I just knew what we needed to do when we confront a situation, and in fact we are doing it,” he said.
The President continued: “We’re in the process of getting set up. Don’t leave your town or city or community.”
Mayorkas continued that theme Wednesday, saying: “The border is secure and the border is not open.”
“We are expelling under the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) public health authority in light of the pandemic. Single individuals who arrive at the border. We are expelling families under that same public health authority, limited only by the capacity of Mexico to receive them,” he added.
Mayorkas said US Border Patrol is building up capacity so migrants can be tested for Covid-19, noting that the administration has been working with local entities and community-based organizations to test and quarantine migrants released from custody.
“US Customs and Border Protection did not have the capacity to test in its facilities, and now we are entering into a contract with one vendor to begin and we will expand as needed so that we can test in the CBP facility, when the other mechanisms of which I have spoken are not available,” Mayorkas said.
House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, billed Wednesday’s hearing as a focus on the “future” of the Department of Homeland Security in the “wake of the Trump administration’s four years of mismanagement and misuse of the Department.”
“For years, President Trump left DHS without a lawfully appointed, confirmed Secretary and kept critical positions vacant so he could exploit the Department for political gain,” Thompson said Wednesday.
Thompson said he looks forward to “competent, Senate-confirmed leadership” now that Mayorkas has been sworn in.
New York Rep. John Katko, the top Republican on the committee, said the situation on the border, where he just visited, continues to “get worse everyday with inadequate action or even proper acknowledgment of the severity of the situation.”
“I can tell you without hesitation that it is indeed a crisis that continues to deepen each and every day,” he said.
Republicans grilled Mayorkas on the administration’s handling of the influx. Rep. Clay Higgins called the hearing “nauseating.”
This story has been updated with additional information and reaction.