Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday. Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP

Biden Administration Floats Boosting Permanent Workforce to Process Migrant Children

Republicans blast current approach, including deployment of feds across government to the border.

Lawmakers and a top Biden administration official traded barbs Thursday over who was responsible for an uptick in migrants arriving at the southern border and how to use federal personnel to confront the situation.

Homeland Security Department Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended his approach, highlighting the reduction in migrant children being held in Border Patrol facilities. The Biden administration has worked aggressively to transfer children from DHS custody to the Health and Human Services Department and on to legal sponsors, tapping the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stand up additional housing units. DHS has slashed the number of unaccompanied children who arrived at the border and remained in Border Patrol custody from nearly 6,000 at its peak earlier this year to less than 500 on Thursday. 

Republicans on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who repeatedly chastised Mayorkas for citing policies initiated under President Trump for leaving his department unprepared for the increase in migrant arrivals, said the current administration was failing to address root causes of the uptick. 

“These children have only moved from one federal agency to another,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the top Republican on the panel. He said when he recently visited the southern border, he learned that the “Border Patrol is overwhelmed and understaffed” and “now HHS is overwhelmed as well.” 

Portman called for a surge in Border Patrol agents, a goal Trump previously set and saw only marginal success in implementing. Mayorkas praised that workforce for its role in handling the significant rise in border crossings and arrivals. 

The situation was “managed due to the selfless dedication and the heroism of the U.S. Border Patrol,” Mayorkas said. He added the administration’s focus on growing HHS capacity and identifying operational efficiencies in finding placements for the children also played a key role in its efforts. 

In addition to mobilizing FEMA, Mayorkas tapped U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers and other employees experienced in immigration case work to help process the new arrivals. Those employees had the technical expertise and experience to quickly vet individuals who claimed responsibility for unaccompanied children, he said. 

“We mobilized capabilities from different agencies,” Mayorkas said. “We’ve called upon the dedication, expertise and talent of the workforce of the Department of Homeland Security.” 

The secretary pledged to continue to lean on that expertise, saying he will meet with Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel in the coming days to hear their perspectives and experiences ahead of guidance he will soon issue on the administration’s enforcement and removal priorities. 

The Biden administration has also used deployments from agencies across government to help HHS process children, a process with which some lawmakers took issue. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., accused the Biden administration of “secretly recruiting” the volunteers, though the Office of Personnel publicly advertised the opportunity in March. 

“I have become aware that your administration has sought to recruit a ‘volunteer force’ of federal employees to help address the surge of migrants,” Lankford said in a letter to Biden. “Your administration has been touting its recent ability to transfer migrants from CBP custody to HHS custody as a success, but your need to recruit this volunteer force demonstrates again that the federal government lacks the capacity to deal with this crisis.”

Lankford said more than 1,000 employees are currently working on details at the border, risking damage to their primary missions at agencies like NASA and the Agriculture Department. Lankford said the deployments demonstrated Biden should complete border wall construction and “enforce the law at the southern border.” 

Mayorkas offered a different solution during Thursday’s hearing, saying the Biden administration is looking into developing a permanent workforce within HHS dedicated to housing unaccompanied migrant children as they await transfers to legal guardians. HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees that process, but Mayorkas said it relies on contractors to staff the facilities for children. 

“It is right now built on a contracting architecture, relying on vendors,” Mayorkas said, adding the administration is exploring, “Can there be a permanent federal workforce and then [additional] contracting architecture as situations arise?” 

Mayorkas repeatedly blasted the Trump administration for lowering HHS’ housing capacity and taking other steps that negatively impacted the government’s capacity to quickly and fairly process immigrants. 

“Programs and resources were torn down by the previous administration,” Mayorkas said. “It was antithetical not only to our values and our principles but also to our operational needs.”