Latest on the crisis at the US border

By Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Mike Hayes and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 5:09 p.m. ET, March 17, 2021
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10:32 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Here's how the Homeland Security secretary says he wants to see the immigration system changed

From CNN's Elise Hammond

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Source: Committee Webstream

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the situation on the southern border cannot be fixed overnight, but it shows why the country needs to rebuild its immigration policies.

"Our primary responsibility is to keep our homeland and the American people safe. We are safer when we take a more comprehensive and sustainable approach to border management, ensuring that policies and procedures at the border are consistent with American values, immigration laws, and regulations," he said in his written opening statement.

Mayorkas is testifying in front of lawmakers today and he's expected to be grilled on the surge of migrants being held at the border, causing officials scramble to provide resources for the increase in minors and families.

Here is what Mayorkas says the US needs to do about the current situation:

  1. Address the root of the problem by engaging with governments to alleviate violence and corruption that drives migrants from their homes.
  2. Work with humanitarian organizations to provide protection for migrants as close to home as possible. These are things like refugee resettlement and family reunification programs.
  3. Help other countries in the region improve their asylum capabilities and protect migrants.
  4. Improve the system for processing migrants at the border and get to their asylum claims in a "fair and timely way."

"While these efforts will dramatically improve migration management in the region and help to restore safe and orderly processing at the border, they will take time, as the President noted. Addressing longstanding challenges after the dismantling of the system cannot be accomplished overnight," Mayorkas said.

Here is what he wants to change about the immigration system:

  • Provide pathways to citizenship "for hardworking people who enrich our communities every day and who have lived in the United States for years, in some cases for decades," he said.
  • Allow people who are undocumented to apply for temporary legal status, and eventually apply for lawful permanent residency after five years if they pass criminal and national security background checks and pay their taxes.
  • Prioritize keeping families together.
  • Implement protections for workers from being exploited while also ensuring fairness for US workers. Mayorkas said he would also want to see the employment verification process improved.
  • Creates safe and legal channels for people to seek protection. 

"We are rebuilding an immigration system that was systematically dismantled during the prior administration. We are making risk-based investments in our border management system to create safe, legal, and humane pathways to asylum and humanitarian protection," he said.

Watch:

10:11 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Homeland Security secretary calls situation at the border "undoubtedly difficult"

From CNN's Elise Hammond

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Source: Committee Webstream

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in his written opening statement that the department is facing a variety of problems right now – including the current situation at the border, which he said is "undoubtedly difficult."

Mayorkas is testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee where he is expected to face questions about the ongoing influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border.

Mayorkas pointed to the ongoing influx of children, testifying that the department has increased its capacity to hold children until the Department of Health and Human Services can shelter them while it identifies and vets the children’s sponsors. He also pointed to FEMA's involvement in this effort. 

As of Tuesday, more than 300 unaccompanied migrant children had been in Border Patrol custody for more than 10 days, CNN has learned. More than 4,200 minors were in custody, with an average time of 120 hours.

"The Department must do this important work while always remaining faithful to the law, our mission, and our country’s values," he said in his opening statement.

Here are the areas where Mayorkas said the department is focusing its efforts:

  • Rebuilding the immigration system and securing the US border: "Let me be clear that the Department continues to enforce our immigration laws and responsibly manage our border, while we restore fairness and efficiency in our immigration system, which was systematically dismantled during the last four years," he said. Mayorkas also gave several ideas on how to rebuild the current system, but emphasized security and facing current security challenges.
  • Covid-19: Mayorkas said DHS is supporting the federal government's response to the pandemic by assisting with vaccine distribution and administration efforts across the country. He said Transportation Security Administration has been protecting those who are traveling and ICE Homeland Security Investigations has launched operations to protect Americans from Covid-related fraud and criminal activity.
  • Strengthening cybersecurity and infrastructure: "The recent cyber intrusion campaigns affecting federal agencies and private sector organizations are a clarion call to urgently improve our national cybersecurity and resilience," he said, directly referencing attacks on Microsoft and SolarWinds.
  • Domestic violent extremism: Mayorkas said the most terrorists threats against the US come from "lone offenders and small groups of individuals" who are motivated by a variety of "extreme" beliefs. He pointed to the riot at the US Capitol on January 6 as evidence of this threat.

9:57 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Biden's DHS secretary is facing lawmakers this morning. Here's what we know about the hearing. 

From CNN's Geneva Sands and Priscilla Alvarez

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on March 1, in Washington.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on March 1, in Washington. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is testifying before lawmakers this morning in a House committee, where he is expected to face questions about the ongoing influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border.

His appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee comes as the Biden administration struggles to accommodate the growing number of children crossing the US-Mexico border alone against the backdrop of a pandemic that's strained resources, particularly shelter space.

"We are on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years," Mayorkas said in a statement Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, more than 300 unaccompanied migrant children had been in Border Patrol custody for more than 10 days, CNN has learned. More than 4,200 minors were in custody, with an average time of 120 hours.

Mayorkas, who is testifying on Capitol Hill for the first time since his confirmation, said the situation at the border was "difficult" and acknowledged that children are not being transferred to US Department of Health and Human Services custody within the three-day legal limit.

Some more background: HHS has not had the capacity to take the number of unaccompanied children encountered at the border, he added. Federal law requires unaccompanied children to be turned over within 72 hours to HHS, which oversees a shelter network designed to house minors.

In February, more than 9,400 unaccompanied children — ranging in ages — crossed the US-Mexico border, according to the latest available data from Customs and Border Protection. That's up from January and is expected to continue trending upward.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden discouraged would-be migrants from coming to the United States, telling ABC, "I can say quite clearly: Don't come."

9:25 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

What things are like in the Border Patrol facilities where migrant children are held

From CNN's Priscilla Alvarez and Geneva Sands, 

A U.S. Border Patrol agent delivers a young asylum seeker and his family to a bus station on February 26, in Brownsville, Texas. 
A U.S. Border Patrol agent delivers a young asylum seeker and his family to a bus station on February 26, in Brownsville, Texas.  John Moore/Getty Images

Children are alternating schedules to make space for one another in confined facilities, some kids haven't seen sunlight in days, and others are taking turns showering, often going days without one.

That's the reality for the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children held up in US Border Patrol custody for days on end, according to case managers, attorneys and Border Patrol agents.

Bunk beds have been brought in to one of the processing facilities to help accommodate the influx of children. "Some of those are up to three bunks high," an agent told CNN, adding that children are also sleeping on plastic cots and mats on the floor and benches.

Customs and Border Protection is on pace to encounter more individuals on the border than in the last 20 years, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday, adding that the agency is coming across children as young as six and seven years old.

More than 300 unaccompanied migrant children have been in Border Patrol custody for more than 10 days, CNN has learned. More than 4,200 minors are currently in custody, with an average time of 120 hours.

With an increasing number of children crossing the US-Mexico border alone, Border Patrol facilities are where kids have to stay until officials can transfer them to shelters that are appropriate for them. These facilities are designed to care for adults, not kids, and are akin to jail-like facilities with concrete walls and benches.

Children at stations in the Tucson, Arizona, region, for instance, have to be transported from Border Patrol stations to a central coordination center to get showers, the Border Patrol agent told CNN.

"There are kids that have been there days and days," the agent said, pointing out that the agency is abiding by the law to care for children, except it is unable to meet the 72-hour legal requirement. "You just can't right now."

Federal law requires unaccompanied children to be turned over within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees a shelter network designed to house minors.

The senior official heading Customs and Border Protection, Troy Miller, told reporters that minors receive three meals daily, have 24/7 access to snacks and drinks and that showers are provided at least every 48 hours. They also have access to a recreation area, Miller said.

Read more here.

9:17 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Why so many children are crossing the US-Mexico border alone

From CNN's Catherine E. Shoichet

A migrant girl walks at an improvised camp outside El Chaparral crossing port as her and other wait for US authorities to allow them to start their migration process in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on March 11. 
A migrant girl walks at an improvised camp outside El Chaparral crossing port as her and other wait for US authorities to allow them to start their migration process in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico, on March 11.  Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

The statistics are staggering. More than 400,000 migrant children have crossed the US border without their parents since 2003.

And each time a new wave arrives, political controversy follows.

The numbers are on the rise again, with some children arriving who are as young as 6 or 7. This increase is sparking fierce debate in Washington, concern from children's advocates and an emergency response from the Biden administration.

Why have so many kids made this dangerous journey? And what happens to them once they reach the United States?

Here are some of the key things we know:

They're fleeing desperate conditions: There are many different reasons migrant children travel alone to the United States. CNN's years of reporting at the border and conversations with experts reveal a common thread: It's not a decision any family makes lightly.

Many of these children, who the government dubs "unaccompanied minors," make asylum claims when they arrive because they're fleeing persecution, gang violence and other forms of organized crime. Dire economic circumstances in their home countries may also contribute to their decisions to leave.

Many already have family members living in the United States: Children who cross the border alone are first held in Customs and Border Protection custody, then transferred to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, where they're held until they're released to sponsors in the United States.

Changing policies are giving them a chance for now:

So why are we seeing another surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border now? There are many contributing factors at play in migrants' home countries -- and also a big change the Biden administration made.

Officials recently ended a controversial Trump administration policy that was put in place during the pandemic. That policy, which cited public health concerns, allowed the US government to kick out children who came to the border without giving them a chance to seek asylum. Critics said it flew in the face of international law and human rights norms, and endangered the lives of children seeking safety.

The Biden administration has stressed that the border isn't open, and officials have pledged to turn back most adults and families who cross. But Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says the cases of unaccompanied minors are different.

Read more here.

9:13 a.m. ET, March 17, 2021

Biden to migrants: "Don't come, and while we're in a process of getting set up, don't leave"

From CNN's Jason Hoffman

President Joe Biden stops briefly to talk to the press as he walks toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on March 16 in Washington.
President Joe Biden stops briefly to talk to the press as he walks toward Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on March 16 in Washington. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Biden expanded on immigration policies his administration hopes to implement, attempting to draw a major distinction between his policies and that of the Trump administration, something the administration has been focused on as the number of migrants in custody at the border surges.

“What do you do with an unaccompanied child that comes to the border? Do you repeat what Trump did, take them from their mothers, to move them away, hold them in cells, et cetera? We're not doing that. So what we're doing is we have brought in HHS and also brought in FEMA to provide for enough safe facilities for them to not — to get out of the control of the border patrol, which are not designed to hold people for long periods of time, particularly children, get them out of those facilities,” Biden said during an interview with ABC News this morning.

He added that many of the unaccompanied children come to the border with a phone number and his administration is working on setting up a system that would allow the US government to contact that number and determine, within seven days, if there is a safe and secure place for that child to go. 

CNN has reported that more than 300 unaccompanied migrant children have been in Border Patrol custody for more than 10 days, and that more than 4,200 minors are currently in custody, with an average time of 120 hours.

Biden also stressed that those seeking asylum should remain where they are as the administration works to set up the system of applying for asylum in place.

“We're in the process of getting set up, and it’s not going to take a whole long time, is to be able to apply for asylum in place, so don't leave your town or city or community. We're going to make sure we have facilities in those cities and towns run by DHS and also access with HHS, the health and human services to say, you can apply for asylum from where you are right now. Make your case. We'll have people there to determine whether or not you are able to meet the requirements and you qualify for asylum,” he said.