Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra (left) and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testify during a hearing before Senate Appropriations Committee on Nov. 8, 2023.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra (left) and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testify during a hearing before Senate Appropriations Committee on Nov. 8, 2023. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Biden administration defends substantial immigration hiring surge as Congress debates emergency spending

Republicans say a more robust package is required to address the southern border.

A flood of new funding for a surge of hiring at immigration and border agencies is required to address growing numbers of migrants arriving in the country, Biden administration officials told lawmakers on Wednesday, pitching the proposal as uncontroversial despite significant partisan pushback. 

While not representing the comprehensive approach to immigration reform the administration would like to see, Alejandro Mayorkas and Xavier Becerra, secretaries of the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, respectively, conceded, it would address an immediate, acute problem of an overwhelmed workforce. Republicans on the committee, however, said they would not approve the White House’s larger $106 billion supplemental funding request—of which the DHS hiring is a part—as written. 

The Biden administration is seeking $13.6 billion to hire nearly 6,000 employees at DHS and the Justice Department, saying the resources are necessary to keep the Southwest border secure and restrict the flow of fentanyl into the county. The ask marked a significantly ramped up approach from the Biden administration, which previously pushed for smaller increases to its immigration and border security workforce.

It also raises questions about how realistic the proposals are given DHS’ previous failures to grow certain components, which lawmakers posed to Mayorkas at the Senate Appropriations Committee’s hearing. 

“How in the world are you going to hire an additional 1,000 officers when you can't even hire up to the allotted amount that you appropriated for today?” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., asked. 

DHS is working on reforming the hiring process, including the longstanding bottleneck caused by the polygraph process, Mayorkas said. 

“We are intensely focused on that administrative aspect of the challenge because we need additional personnel,” the secretary explained. 

Moore Capito suggested DHS boost pay and retention bonuses for Border Patrol personnel, as Senate Republicans proposed in a recent package of border security reform proposals that also included strict limitations on asylum and other immigration pathways. President Biden asked for funding for 1,300 new Border Patrol agents as part of his request. Congress funded an additional 300 Border Patrol agents as part of the fiscal 2023 omnibus spending bill—marking the first such increase in more than a decade—and Biden requested an additional 350 in his fiscal 2024 budget. 

Customs and Border Protection has struggled for years to fill Border Patrol and customs officer positions. The Trump administration signed a contract worth up to $300 million to help it bring on 7,500 border personnel, but canceled it after it managed to hire just 15 employees. Lawmakers for years were forced to claw back money appropriated for CBP hiring after the agency failed to meet its targets. In more recent years, the agency has seen some success in slowly growing its workforce.

Under Biden’s current supplemental funding request, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would gain 1,600 new asylum officers, CBP would see 1,000 new officers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement would add 1,470 attorneys. The latter hiring would accompany 375 immigration judges within Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review—the agency that runs the nation’s immigration courts—and support staff for each of them.

Filling Biden’s request would likely prove operationally challenging beyond just CBP, as DHS components have for a decade struggled to hire to their authorized levels. The asylum officer and ICE attorney plans would more than double those workforces.

Republicans on the spending committee expressed some support for increasing resources for border agencies, but said the request was incomplete without accompanying policy reforms. 

“I’m with you,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “We need to have more men and women at the border.” 

Mayorkas assessed the response to his requests in saying the proposed hiring “does not seem, to me, to be particularly controversial,” though Murkowksi and others noted that she did not want to dump more money into a broken system. 

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the top Republican on the appropriations panel, made clear Republicans would not accept the White House’s package as is, though expressed optimism a bipartisan measure could be possible. A small, bipartisan group of senators are reportedly working on immigration measures that could be added to a supplemental funding package. House Republicans, meanwhile, opted to split off a standalone bill for aid to Israel, which it passed primarily along party lines.

“We are working on the funding request, and then I hope that we can work together to address some real concerns about the funding request, as well as some policy issues,” Collins said. 

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., added additional funding must be accompanied by better metrics to track the performance of new DHS employees, while Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., suggested DHS had a "'implementation of the law problem, not a funding problem." Mayorkas repeatedly stressed the administration would only consider policy reforms as part of a comprehensive package. 

Sen. Patty Muray, D-Wash., who chairs the panel, said staffing for immigration and border personnel should be part of the supplemental package, which focuses on aid to Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific. 

“We should all be able to agree that we need to make sure that the folks who safeguard our borders have the resources they need to do their jobs safely, humanely and effectively, and that reducing the USCIS backlog is a good thing,” Murray said. 

Mayorkas suggested the hiring itself would amount to a policy change, as it would allow for greater deterrence through increased enforcement. 

“When we talk about hiring, for example, additional personnel to conduct the case processing? That means that the Border Patrol agents are out into the field, which is where they belong to do the jobs they swore to do and they signed up to do,” Mayorkas said. 

More asylum officers, meanwhile, would enable faster adjudication of asylum cases in each stage of the process. 

“The unacceptable fact [is] that it is far too slow a process, the asylum adjudication process, that is, because the system is broken and, critically, we are terribly underfunded and under-resourced,” Mayorkas said.