WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitt Romney went after Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — again — over his handling of the surge of migrants at the southern border, complaining that the Biden administration has politicized finishing the wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
"I simply can't understand any logical reason not to complete it. Look, I'm not a severe partisan that's going to attack Democrats at every corner. But this just strikes me as being nonsense," the Utah Republican said Tuesday during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.
President Joe Biden stopped construction of the barrier started under former President Donald Trump shortly after taking office in January. The Trump administration spent $15 billion on 455 miles of steel wall along the border.
Romney and Mayorkas had an animated exchange during a committee hearing on immigration in May where the secretary repeatedly dismissed and refused to acknowledge problems with what the senator described as skyrocketing numbers of apprehensions and unaccompanied children at the border. Romney called that "extremely damning."
On Tuesday, Romney again said he doesn't know why the Biden administration doesn't want to acknowledge the border crisis.
"I guess the real question in my mind is why we politicize everything. You know I'm one of those who's critical of people who politicize vaccination. But I'm also incredulous that there seems to be politicization about whether we should complete the border barrier that's already been contracted to be completed," he said.
Mayorkas said the decision about the wall wasn't political but substantive.
"The $15 billion that was dedicated to construction of the border wall was ill-advised and we can use the government's funds, the taxpayers' funds more wisely through investment in innovation, technology," he said.
Romney said he's all for technology but the contracts for the barrier have been authorized and contractors are guarding the steel while waiting to build.
What's happening at our southern border is a crisis—yet there's been no acknowledgement from the Administration. The scenes from our southern border are both alarming and threatening to our national security and economic vitality. pic.twitter.com/LRGu2TxILy— Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) July 27, 2021
Biden also ordered a 60-day study of the border wall when he halted construction in January. Mayorkas said it's still in progress.
"Businesses are able to make major decisions on acquisitions and so forth in a lot faster time frame than that. We came up with a vaccine. Heavens, why can't we make a decision and then proceed?" the senator said.
Romney also questioned the Biden administration's effort to get at the "root causes" of the migration. Addressing the factors that cause individuals and families to flee their homes in the first place and attempt the dangerous journey to the southern border is aligned with the country's national interests and values, Mayorkas said earlier in the hearing.
"Are you suggesting that somehow we should be able to invest to make sure that all of Latin America gets rid of their dictators, gets rid of their corruption, ends violence, and if we do that, maybe there'll be less people trying to get to the border? That's unrealistic. That's, of course, absurd," Romney said.
Mayorkas said he believes in smart and effective immigration enforcement, and that is what the administration is doing. He said taxpayer money shouldn't be spent unwisely and inconsistent with enforcement priorities that are designed to achieve the greatest public safety.
I simply can't understand any logical reason not to complete it. Look, I'm not a severe partisan that's going to attack Democrats at every corner. But this just strikes me as being nonsense.
–Utah Sen. Mitt Romney
Romney pressed Mayorkas on House Democrats' effort to slash budgets for immigration enforcement, even laughing at the secretary's answer at one point.
"Of course, I agree with motherhood and apple pie as well. But the House has voted to reduce spending on enforcement. Is that something with which you concur or do you believe that would be a mistake?" the senator said.
After Romney repeated the question several times, Mayorkas said the budget should be increased in certain respects and reduced in others, drawing a laugh from the senator. Mayorkas said some of the money is not spent wisely to achieve the most important outcomes.
"I know you disagree with me by your physical reaction but, if I may, I know that from being in the trenches, actually doing the work," the secretary said.
"I asked a simple question, 'Do you think the budget should be reduced or not?' and you responded like a politician. What can I say? I'm a politician too," Romney replied.
Romney also questioned Mayorkas on whether he believes trillion-dollar federal deficits pose a threat to national security. Mayorkas said he was ill-equipped to answer.
"You're the head of the Department of Homeland Security. The question I'm asking is are we reaching a point where the level of our debt and deficits and the interest we're paying represent a threat to our homeland security," Romney said.
"Not to my knowledge, senator," Mayorkas said. He said he believes the administration's efforts to rebuild the country contribute to its national, homeland, and economic security as well as its possibilities and promise.
Romney replied, "That's an answer to a question that I didn't ask."