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United States & World

DHS Secretary Mayorkas On Border Conditions And Next Steps For Surge Of Migrants

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Inhumane and counterproductive. Those are the words from the resignation letter of the U.S. special envoy to Haiti, Daniel Foote. The longtime diplomat says that Haiti, still struggling in the aftermath of a hurricane, political assassination and gang violence that has U.S. officials confined to their compound, cannot absorb the Haitians the U.S. is sending back on flights.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

But those flights continue as U.S. officials aim to break down the camp of some 15,000 people that have amassed at the border by Del Rio, Texas. The images of horse patrols threatening some migrants have come to symbolize the crisis. Here to explain, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.

Welcome to the program.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Thank you very much for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: First, I want to hear your assessment about why it appears U.S. officials did not know this was happening, how thousands of people could move through Mexico undetected, undeterred because our reporters on the ground are inquiring about whether smugglers were involved.

MAYORKAS: Audie, let me, if I may, start with the photographs that were mentioned at the very outset because we were horrified to see the images that correctly and necessarily captured the country's attention. And let me assure the public that we are investigating this both thoroughly and swiftly. And the facts of our investigation will determine the results and the actions that we take.

CORNISH: What's to be investigated? The use of horse patrols has been long-going. Is now the only issue that it was public?

MAYORKAS: Oh, not at all. What we saw or what is captured in those images is very troubling in terms of the use of the horse - potentially weaponizing the horse and weaponizing the reins. I don't want to presuppose facts, but those images are extraordinarily troubling and horrifying. And that is what we are investigating - the conduct of particular individuals.

CORNISH: What's happened to them in the meantime?

MAYORKAS: They are on administrative duties. They are not conducting their law enforcement obligations, and they are not interacting with any migrants. That is not who we are.

CORNISH: I want to come back to your initial question, then. Are we looking at an intelligence failure?

MAYORKAS: We are not. We were tracking movements of the Haitian diaspora community from South America. But this is unprecedented in terms of the number of individuals who crossed the border in an extraordinarily compacted period of time. We have never seen thousands of people cross the border in one particular place.

CORNISH: And there's no clue why. There's no sense of intelligence even working with Mexico about what happened.

MAYORKAS: Oh. Well...

CORNISH: We're truly caught off guard in terms of Homeland Security.

MAYORKAS: We work with the Mexican authorities. We have our own intelligence architecture. And we are aware of the involvement of smuggling organizations in irregular migration and the misinformation that they disseminate to vulnerable populations. This is precisely why we broadcast accurate information and we urge people not to take the perilous journey.

CORNISH: DHS has repeatedly declined to say how many Haitian migrants are being allowed in. Can you tell us? If not, why not?

MAYORKAS: Let me say who is allowed to come in. We are, as everyone knows, exercising the public health authority that rests with the Centers for Disease Control in light of the fact that we are in a pandemic. This is not regular order.

CORNISH: And this is Title 42.

MAYORKAS: It is Title 42.

CORNISH: And this is the justification that allows the U.S. to send Haitians back to their country without giving them a chance to apply for asylum. Since you've brought it up, this is something that you're coming in for serious criticism for using from Democrats who say that you shouldn't still be using this pandemic-era rule in this instance.

MAYORKAS: It is very important that people understand that Title 42 is not an immigration policy, and we do not embrace it as an immigration policy. It is a public health imperative as determined by the Centers for Disease Control because...

CORNISH: So people are not being expelled under that policy.

MAYORKAS: Oh, they most certainly are. And, in fact, that is not particular to the Haitian migrants that we are encountering at the border. That is an authority that we have been exercising for months all along the southern border. And it's not something that we have been enforcing merely with respect to individuals crossing in between the ports of entry. Remember; we have suffered more than...

CORNISH: How do you respond to the criticism about using it with the surge of Haitian migrants, not giving them a chance to apply...

MAYORKAS: This is...

CORNISH: ...For asylum, right? They're being sent back.

MAYORKAS: They are. And we are - they're being sent to Haiti and to other countries in South America. And the Title 42 authority - the Public Health Authority has been employed with respect to irregular migration all along the southern border with respect to individuals from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala.

CORNISH: Countries that many of these people who had gotten asylum in Chile and elsewhere have fled, right? So they're being sent back and set back in their journey. I want to ask about the Biden administration looking to build housing for refugees in Guantanamo. Back in the '90s, the camp for Haitian refugees there was known for deplorable conditions. Why look to expand detention facilities there again?

MAYORKAS: We are not. That was mistaken information that was published yesterday. That is not the intention. With respect to Guantanamo, Guantanamo was a place that historically has been used to return individuals who are interdicted at sea. That is not applicable to the individuals whom we are encountering along the southern border. That is just misinformation.

CORNISH: Thank you for correcting the record. Finally, how does the Biden administration kind of defend this policy of sending people back to a failed state? I mean, this is what the special envoy was complaining about.

MAYORKAS: We made a determination several months ago looking at the country conditions in Haiti that individuals unlawfully present in the United States from Haiti could not return to Haiti because of the conditions there. And we extended humanitarian relief in the form of temporary protected status, and we determined that those individuals could be eligible for TPS as it is not...

CORNISH: But we're talking about the surge now in people being put back on flights now.

MAYORKAS: If I may, for those individuals who were present in the United States prior to July 29, we've continued to assess the country conditions. And we have determined, along with the country of Haiti, that, in fact, individuals can be returned there safely. And that is also one of the reasons why we are ensuring their safety by surging USAID and other humanitarian resources to facilitate their settlement in Haiti.

CORNISH: That's Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Thank you for your time.

MAYORKAS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.