SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney grilled Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over the Biden administration's handling of the surge of migrants at the southern border in an animated exchange during a Senate hearing Thursday.
Mayorkas repeatedly dismissed and refused to acknowledge problems with what the Utah Republican described as "skyrocketing" numbers of apprehensions and unaccompanied children at the U.S. border with Mexico.
"I must admit that I have found this hearing to be stunning in that, it seems Mr. Secretary, that you're proud of the progress being made by the administration, that things are going well at the border," Romney said, pointing to a chart showing apprehensions sharply rising since President Joe Biden took office.
"I see an extraordinary crisis," he said during the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. "I mean, do you recognize this as an alarming crisis?"
Mayorkas said he looks at immigration as a persistent challenge for many years.
Romney said he finds it "astonishing" that the secretary responsible for securing the border and the nation's immigration system doesn't see the increasing numbers at the border as a problem, "and is not saying, 'Hey, we've got to make some changes immediately.'
I find that extraordinary and extremely damning."
More alarming than the adults crossing the border illegally is the "explosion" of children arriving from places like Honduras after having walked across Mexico, he said.
"Is this not a massive failure that would suggest that the administration needs to take immediate action to remedy what we're seeing here?" the senator said.
Mayorkas said the Biden administration has taken immediate action regarding the unaccompanied children.
"We are addressing that challenge with increasing efficiency every single day," he said.
In April 2021, border agents encountered 178,622 migrants attempting to cross the southwest border, a 3% increase over March, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection numbers released Tuesday.
"The question is, do you have plans to do something dramatically different such that those numbers come down to an acceptable level because as you can imagine this overwhelms our border control agents?" Romney said. "If they've got numbers like this they're dealing with, this means that the drug cartels can be smuggling through drugs because our folks are taking care of kids, they're taking care of people coming in illegally."
During the hearing, Mayorkas defended the Biden administration's border plan and touted the progress made to reduce the number of children in custody, saying the number has dropped in recent months.
Unaccompanied children and single minors at the border dropped to 13,962 in April compared with 15,918 in March, a 12% decrease, according to the agency. The average number of children in custody has decreased to 2,895 from 4,109 in March, with the number at 455 on May 11.
The law provides certain procedures and rights for children who arrive unaccompanied and have claims of asylum, who claim fear of persecution by reason of their membership in a particular social group, "so we have an obligation," Mayorkas said. He said 90% of those children have a parent or legal guardian in the U.S.
"So this is not a problem then?" Romney said. "Your view is that this is the way it's going to be."
Mayorkas said the children have a claim under the law for asylum or special immigrant juvenile status. "And we can, in fact, meet the challenge," he said.