Alejandro Mayorkas, DHS chief: ‘I give myself an A for effort’

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas graded himself with an “A for effort” on Tuesday, telling senators he believes the Biden administration is on the right track to solve the border’s chaos and to make up for what he called cruel Trump policies.

Fighting through three hours of combative questions from senators on the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Mayorkas said it “takes time” for the results to show along the border, but defended the slow progress even as new numbers showed illegal border crossings last month broke the record for October, usually a slow month.

“We’re on the road to success,” he said.

His defense was not reassuring to Republicans on the committee.

“The Department of Homeland Security has clearly failed in its mission to obtain operational control,” said Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican.

Mr. Mayorkas found himself on the defensive over activities across his sprawling department. He sparred with one senator who accused him of holding immigrant children in cages, and repeatedly admitted he didn’t have data on hand that senators were seeking.

Some of his toughest questions came over the screening of Afghan evacuees.

Under questioning by Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, Mr. Mayorkas admitted that tens of thousands of Afghans who he has granted parole to enter the U.S. were not put through the same rigorous screening as they would have been had they come as refugees.

“They have not all been given interviews,” he acknowledged.

Instead, he said, the department is relying on fingerprints to try to flag potential bad actors, and those folks were then given interviews before boarding planes to the U.S.

Mr. Hawley said that would miss anyone who isn’t already in the databases.

“Don’t you think that’s dangerous?” the senator countered.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, asked Mr. Mayorkas to grade his performance so far.

“I’m a tough grader on myself, and I give myself an ‘A’ for effort in mission and support of our workforce,” he said.

Later, speaking to Mr. Lee, he elaborated: “I put 100% into my work, and I’m incredibly proud to do so.”

Mr. Mayorkas tried to avoid questions about proposed $450,000 payments to the immigrants caught in the Trump-era zero-tolerance border policy. He said that was a matter for the Justice Department.

But he insisted that the payments, which are being negotiated by the Biden administration, would not spur a new wave of illegal immigration.

“A settlement payment of a federal court claim charge arising from a family separation effected under the prior admin’s zero-tolerance policy would not be a pull factor,” Mr. Mayorkas told Mr. Hawley.

For much of the hearing, Mr. Mayorkas and Republicans talked past each other.

Where he focused on the 965,000 border jumpers who were expelled under the government’s pandemic emergency border shutdown, GOP senators said the more important number was the 500,000 or more migrants who were caught and released by Homeland Security, or the nearly 400,000 migrants believed to have evaded detection altogether.

Mr. Mayorkas said those will be priorities for deportation if they lose their immigration cases.

The secretary also admitted that nearly 95,000 migrants were released without even a court date, in the hope they would show up at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office later to get a court appointment. A striking percentage have not shown up.

Pointed questions came from Democrats, too, on Tuesday.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, chided the administration for its handling of the Afghan airlift, saying that many of the people who made it out on airplanes were not actually at risk. He said the fact that they were able to reach the airport, through Taliban checkpoints, was proof of that.

He said those truly at risk weren’t even able to make it to the airport and were left behind.

“Now we have this tremendous challenge ahead of us, and what I’ve seen about the evacuation effort is a lot of agencies pointing fingers at states, pointing fingers at DOD or DOD pointing fingers at DHS,” he said.

And Sen. Cory A. Booker, New Jersey Democrat, blasted Mr. Mayorkas‘ continued use of the pandemic expulsion powers, calling it the “Stephen Miller special” — a reference to former President Donald Trump‘s key immigration adviser.

Mr. Mayorkas defended the expulsion powers, saying in fact they were derived from a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Mayorkas also finds himself in a tricky bureaucratic situation, after President Biden tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to be involved in solving the immigration surge. Republicans have called her the “border czar,” though Mr. Mayorkas insisted that’s wrong, and her actual role is less about what’s happening here and more about trying to solve the flow of people leaving their homes in Central America.

Asked by Mr. Hawley how that’s going, Mr. Mayorkas said it “takes time” to see the results.

Mr. Mayorkas said he‘s met with Ms. Harris “more than a handful” of times. But he acknowledged their last conversation was “several weeks ago.”