At a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) pressed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about the Administration’s failure to secure our southern border. He urged the Secretary to prioritize the completion of the barrier along the southern border instead of solely focusing on addressing the root causes of illegal immigration—specifically crime and poverty in Latin America.
Senator Romney also expressed concern over recent reports about the failures of DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to adequately vet and monitor the sponsors of unaccompanied minors. Many of these children have fallen victim to human trafficking.
A transcript of Romney’s exchange with Mayorkas can be found below the video.
Senator Romney: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I just had a note at the outset, Mr. Secretary, that you describe the hemisphere-wide concern and desire to address some of the root causes that encourage people to leave their countries and come to ours. I would note that that is an impossible task. The United States of America is always going to be in a more attractive place for people to come live than in the countries that you’re describing.
We have a stronger economy. People have much better lives here, much healthier lives and so forth. The idea that we’re going to somehow solve the root causes in all of Latin America, of corruption, of the kind of military threats going on, that it’s just not going to happen. So we’re going to have to secure our border. And I would anticipate that if we continue to have the kind of global warming that we’ve been having, that there’s going to be an even greater demand to move into our country.
So we’re going to have to secure our border. And sure, we’re going to try and help other countries to the extent we can and encourage them to adopt policies that will make them more likely to be successful and to have less pressure to send people to our country. But they’re still going to keep coming here. I presume you agree with that. There is going to always be, during our lifetime, a huge demand for people coming into our country from Latin America.
Secretary Mayorkas: I do agree with that.
Romney: Okay. And so, all the talk about we need to address root causes, just like, come on, guys, this is taking our eye off the ball, which is we need to have our border secure. Give us a grade. How are we in terms of securing our border, our southern border first? Is it an, A, B, C, D, E, or F in terms of the security of America’s southern border? Is it an A or an F? Where do you grade it?
Romney: I’m looking for a letter!
Mayorkas: Senator, it’s not so straightforward…
Romney: Sure it is! We know how many people are coming across. Are we doing a great job or is it like still failing?
Mayorkas: Senator, the issue of addressing the root causes is not exclusive…
Romney: I have a question, which is: Can you grade how secure our southern border is? And A, through an F?
Mayorkas: Senator, we are dedicating our resources to achieve the maximum possible effect of them.
Romney: Are we succeeding? Is it an A or is it a B, a D? Where are we in terms of the number of people coming across the border? For instance, we have gaps in a wall. That’s like, why would you not want to just complete the wall, for Pete’s sake, and complete the fencing and make sure that we’re in every way we can securing it, at least physically, as well as the other sources that we have.
But you’re not willing to give it a grade? I mean, I am! It’s an F. It’s clearly an F! Do you disagree?
Mayorkas: Senator, I have actually approved almost 130 projects for the closing of gaps and the completion of gates on the wall. So I understand your concern, and I want to return to the fundamental point that addressing the root causes is not exclusive of securing our border. It is in addition to, and as a complement of, and it’s not about eliminating migration in its entirety, I agree with you, but it’s about reducing the level of migration so people who do not want to leave their countries of origin actually have the capacity to remain and build a life for themselves.
Romney: We can’t solve poverty here. We can’t end crime here in our own country. The idea that we’re going to do it in dozens of countries across Latin America and reduce the desire of people to come to America is just not realistic. Let’s devote our resources to securing our border.
Second topic, which is our asylum system. I mean, is that a broken system from your standpoint? We have 1.6 million people who are in line for adjudication on their asylum claim. These claims would take years to process. Is this system working? Do we need new legislation or we need to change our asylum system somehow? How do you grade our asylum system?
Mayorkas: Senator, our asylum system is broken. Our entire immigration system is broken and in desperate need of reform. And it’s been so for years and years. And it is why the President submitted on his very first day in office proposed legislation to fix it.
Romney: Good. Thank you. Let me just turn to one more topic in the short time I have. Last Congress, the minority staff on this committee issued a report highlighting failures at DHS and HHS to adequately vet and monitor unaccompanied children that are coming into the country. Over 290,000 such children entered the country during ‘21 and ‘22. Three-quarters of them were released to sponsors. Many of the children—as we understand now—released as sponsors under the program, have reportedly been trafficked into forced labor or even sexual abuse. What are you doing to address this problem? It’s increasingly in the public awareness. Are we making progress here? What’s happening?
Mayorkas: Yes. So if I may, Senator, our responsibility by law is to turn an unaccompanied child over to Health and Human Services within 72 hours. We are not involved in the process of when HHS turns that unaccompanied child over to a sponsor, a family member, or approved sponsor. That is not where we are involved. But one important measure that we have taken is our worksite enforcement strategy is actually now focused on employers, unscrupulous employers, who exploit individuals because of their vulnerability, including underage children.
Romney: Do you need legislation there? Should we increase the penalties for employers that are exploiting underage children in the workforce?
Mayorkas: Senator, I would welcome the opportunity to work with you to look into that, to understand the penalties and whether, in fact, enhanced penalties are warranted. I would welcome the opportunity to work with you on that.
Romney: I would also note that my guess is that if we talk to HHS, they’d say, well, this is not entirely our responsibility. I mean, both agencies are going to point to the other. So, I would hope that both agencies will say we are going to work together across agencies to make sure that this problem is limited to the extent it possibly can be.
Mayorkas: Most certainly. And Senator, if I created a misimpression that I was pointing the finger, I’m sorry for that, because this is a collective responsibility. This is a responsibility of the entire government and all of society.
Romney: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.