DHS secretary travels to border amid influx of asylum seekers

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Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is travelling to the U.S.-Mexico border Friday with a group of bipartisan lawmakers as an influx of migrants seek asylum, creating a backlog of unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody. 

Mayorkas will be joined by top members on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Senators Gary Peters and Rob Portman, as well as leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Homeland Security, Senators Chris Murphy and Shelley Moore Capito, according to a DHS official. 

The group is going to El, Paso, Texas, to receive a briefing on “the processing, shelter, and transfer of unaccompanied children arriving at our border,” according to a statement released by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Friday. 

Roughly 4,500 unaccompanied migrant children were being held in short-term Custom and Border Protection (CBP) facilities along the southern border, as of Thursday, according to a Biden administration official. The backlog of migrant children in Border Patrol custody has steadily increased over the past week.

The number of unaccompanied migrant children housed by the U.S. Refugee Office within the Department of Health and Human Services has also spiked. As of Wednesday, more than 9,500 unaccompanied children remained in shelters and emergency housing facilities overseen by the refugee agency.

Mayorkas on Wednesday defended the Biden administration’s handling of the surge of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and its decision to allow children who arrive without a parent or legal guardian to make their asylum claims in the U.S., a departure from Trump administration policy.

“Their families made the heart-wrenching decision to send them on a journey across Mexico, to provide them with a better, safer future,” the secretary said. “The previous administration was expelling these unaccompanied children — some who are girls under the age of 12, for example — back to Mexico. We ended that practice.”

The Biden administration has continued the Trump-era policy of using the public health law to quickly expel most single migrant adults and families from the southern border, but shielded unaccompanied children from the expulsions.

According to witness accounts, many unaccompanied minors at CBP processing facilities face overcrowded conditions, with some held for as long as seven days, despite the legal limit of 72 hours. 

The delegation’s trip to the border, Friday, will be closed to press “due to privacy and COVID-19 precautions,” according to the DHS statement. 

Pressed on whether journalists will be able to access border holding facilities, Thursday, a Biden administration official indicated that DHS made an “operational decision” in March 2020 “to discourage visitors” because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and that rule “still stands.”

Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed to this report. 

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