Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas maintained he will stay at the helm of the department amid intense scrutiny from Republican lawmakers who have criticized his handling of the US-Mexico border.
While control of the House remains undecided, Republicans have already singled out Mayorkas and the Department of Homeland Security among the targets of their investigations if they seize the majority. Tuesday’s hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee offered a preview.
“Have you had a conversation with anyone in the administration about stepping down from your current role?” asked Republican Rep. Jake LaTurner of Kansas.
“I have not,” Mayorkas responded.
“I hope, for the sake of the safety of the American people, that that conversation happens very soon,” LaTurner said.
Over the course of the hearing, Mayorkas maintained that the border is “secure” and batted down criticism that it’s “open” as Republicans have claimed, saying that the Biden administration continues to implement a Trump-era pandemic restriction that allows for the swift expulsion of migrants.
“It’s a very serious challenge,” Mayorkas said, stressing that it’s a “challenge that is not specific or exclusive to our southern border. This is a challenge that exists throughout the hemisphere.”
The top Republican on the panel, John Katko of New York, focused on the increased number of migrants at the US-Mexico border. “In the first two years of the Biden administration, we have seen a disturbing trend become a catastrophic humanitarian crisis at the border,” he said.
Republican Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana also foreshadowed the next term, telling Mayorkas: “We look forward to seeing you in January.”
The US Border Patrol made over 2.2 million arrests in fiscal year 2022 for unlawful crossings on the US-Mexico border, the highest annual number of apprehensions on record, amid mass migration in the Western hemisphere. Over a million of those encountered at the border have also been turned back to Mexico or their home countries.
US border crossings also increased slightly last month compared to September, according to newly released US Customs and Border Protection data, though authorities saw a drop in Venezuelan migrants crossing unlawfully.
The hearing came on the heels of the resignation of US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus, who had been asked to resign by Mayorkas last week.
Magnus had been criticized internally for being out of touch with the agency and publicly for the handling of the US-Mexico border. During his tenure, officials also told CNN they believed Magnus seemed disengaged and wasn’t joining some internal meetings at a critical time for the agency. CBP Deputy Commissioner Troy Miller is now serving as the acting commissioner.
Threats facing the US ‘have never been greater or more complex’
The hearing also touched on international terrorism, domestic terrorism, cyber threats, and election security. FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid testified alongside Mayorkas.
Mayorkas stressed the “evolving terrorism threat” that now includes “lone actors fueled by a wide range of violent extremist ideologies and grievances, including domestic violent extremists.”
“From cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure to increasing destabilizing efforts by hostile nation states, the threats facing the homeland have never been greater or more complex,” he said.
Mayorkas also cited efforts by Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea as “hostile nations” targeting infrastructure through cyberattacks.
There were only a handful of documented cyberattacks aimed at election-related infrastructure on Election Day, but nothing that kept people from casting their vote, according to US officials. But foreign influence activity – the use of social media or other means to sway voters – is harder to measure.
But Jen Easterly, the head of US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, has expressed concern over foreign operatives using the days and week between Election Day and when votes are certified – including the leadup to next month’s Senate runoff in Georgia – to further amplify disinformation about voting and sow discord among Americans.
Meanwhile, terrorism threats to the US have shifted over the years, with officials more and more concerned about lone actors inspired by ideologies online rather than foreign-directed and planned attacks. Mayorkas said Tuesday that it “continues to be our assessment” that domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal and persistent terrorism related threat to the United States.
“Domestic violent extremism, particularly through lone actors or small groups loosely affiliated, are spurred to violence by ideologies of hate, anti-government sentiments, personal grievances, and other narratives propagated on online platforms,” he said.
Wray echoed those concerns, saying that going back to the summer of 2019, there has been an increase in domestic violent extremism. The FBI is concerned about the lethality, especially of racially motivated violent extremists, as well as the spike that started in 2020, of anti-government and anti-authority violent extremism, Wray said.
Wray also said that there’s been a trend over the last “several years” of people turning to violence to manifest frustrations.
“That’s a very dangerous trend,” he said when asked by Rep. Donald Payne Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, how officials are assessing threats against public figures given the recent attack against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband.
Mayorkas noted how that trend also applies to law enforcement. “This year has seen the greatest number of ambushes against law enforcement officers,” Mayorkas said.
This story has been updated with additional details.