White House Washington D.C. March 01 12:07 P.M. EST
Okay. Today, we have a very special guest, Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas. Secretary Mayorkas is the first Latino and immigrant confirmed to serve as Secretary of Homeland Security. He has led a distinguished 30-year career as a law enforcement official and a nationally recognized lawyer in the private sector. He served as the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2013 to 2016 and as the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2009 to 2013.
During his tenure at DHS, he led the development and implementation of DACA, negotiated cybersecurity and homeland security agreements with foreign governments, led the Department's response to Ebola and Zika, helped build and administer the Blue Campaign to combat human trafficking, and developed an emergency relief program for orphaned youth following the tragic January 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
He's been kind enough to offer to take some of your questions. As always, I will be the bad cop. With that, I will turn it over to you.
Thank you very much, Jen. And good morning, everyone. I'd like to spend a few minutes to provide you with an overview of what we have done and are continuing to do and what we are dedicated to achieving. We are dedicated to achieving and, quite frankly, are working around the clock to replace the cruelty of the past administration with an orderly, humane, and safe immigration process. It is hard, and it will take time. But rest assured, we are going to get it done.
Let me explain to you why it is hard and why it is going to take time. I think it is important to understand what we have inherited, because it defines the situation as it currently stands. Entire systems are not rebuilt in a day or in a few weeks. To put it succinctly, the prior administration dismantled our nation's immigration system in its entirety.
When I started 27 days ago, I learned that we did not have the facilities available or equipped to administer the humanitarian laws that our Congress passed years ago. We did not have the personnel, policies, procedures, or training to administer those laws. Quite frankly, the entire system was gutted.
In addition, they tore down the Central American Minors program that allowed children to access laws of protection without having to take the perilous journey north. They cut off funding to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. No planning had been done to protect the frontline personnel of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other frontline personnel that address the needs of individuals coming to our border. Contracts had been entered that were unlawful or against the interests of the United States Department of Justice. And that's just the tip of it.
And I must tell you that it pains me profoundly to say this today, on March 1st, the 18th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
It takes time to rebuild an entire system and to process individuals at the border in a safe and just way. That is especially true when we're in the midst of the pandemic and are obligated, of course, to adhere to the restrictions and procedures that have been promulgated by the CDC to ensure public safety, including the safety of the individuals who arrive at our border. It takes time to build out of the depths of cruelty that the administration before us established.
What we are seeing now at the border is the immediate result of the dismantlement of the system and the time that it takes to rebuild it virtually from scratch. We have, though, already begun to design — and, in fact, have begun to implement — a new, innovative way to address the needs of the population that was forced to remain in Mexico during the prior administration. That rebuilding — that innovative solution is but one part of a multi-part strategy to execute on the President's vision. For example, we've also begun to rebuild a process for young people to be able to access avenues of protection without having to take the perilous journey. We have begun to develop and rebuild the program to reunify individuals with their families here in the United States, as was once the case.
The President set forth his bold vision in his executive orders at the outset of his administration, and we are driven to implement them successfully.
Let me, if I can, take a couple minutes to explain that innovative system to which I referred with respect to how we are addressing the individuals who were forced into the "Remain in Mexico" program under the prior administration.
Working very closely with the Mexican government and international organizations in Mexico, we have developed a virtual platform that enables individuals with active cases in the "Remain in Mexico" program to actually register for relief using their phones. The international organizations then work with those individuals to test them, process their cases, and transport them safely and, according to a defined schedule, to the port of entry where we are awaiting them and can process them through the port of entry successfully.
We started with one port and 25 individuals a day. We are now at three ports, and we have enhanced our processes at one of those three ports to reach 100 individuals a day in processing to address the acute need in the camp at Matamoros, which we have all heard so much about.
This is all, by the way, at a time when we are also addressing the needs of our frontline personnel. Soon after I took office on February 2nd, we launched Operation VOW, Vaccinate Our Workforce, where we have really surged resources and capabilities, according to the paradigm that has been established by the COVID-19 task force, to address the needs of frontline personnel throughout the federal government.
In February alone, we have vaccin- — we started at 2 percent of that frontline personnel workforce vaccinated. At the end of February, we were — we were able to reach 20 percent of the frontline personnel.
I have to take this opportunity, at the same time, to reiterate a message that we have communicated repeatedly throughout, which is a message to those individuals who are thinking of coming to our border: They need — they need to wait.
It takes time to rebuild the system from scratch. If they come — if families come, if single adults come to the border, we are obligated to, in the service of public health — including the health of the very people who are thinking of coming — to impose the travel restrictions under the CDC's Title 42 authorities and return them to Mexico. And we have done that.
We need individuals to wait. And I will say that they will wait with a goal in mind, and that is our ability to rebuild, as quickly as possible, a system so that they don't have to take the dangerous journey and we can enable them to access humanitarian relief from their countries of origin. The fact of the matter is that families and single adults are indeed being returned under the COVID-19 restrictions.
Let me then turn to the issue and the challenge of unaccompanied children, because I know that much has been reported about the handling of unaccompanied children. And let me just explain the process, if I may.
When an unaccompanied child reaches the border and comes in between the ports of entry, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel, specifically the United States Border Patrol, brings that child to a Border Patrol station for processing. The Border Patrol is only a pass-through. We are obligated to turn that child over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. We are a pass-through. And then, Health and Human Services — or HHS, of course, that is commonly referred to — addresses the needs of that child as HHS is identifying and vetting sponsors in — whose trust the child can be placed while the child is in immigration proceedings.
And so we have the child for a maximum of 72 hours. And, of course, given the pandemic and its restrictions, given the extreme weather conditions in Texas, a critical part of that 72- hour timeframe was certainly under stress, as we all know and as we can all understand. And then, children are in HHS custody for an average of about 31 or 32 days.
Finally, let me turn to, I think, the most powerful and heartbreaking example of the cruelty that preceded this administration, and that is the intentional separation of children from their parents. I am the chairman. I have the privilege of serving at the President's designation as the chairman of the Family Reunification Task Force.
The First Lady has driven us to action through her personal commitment to this moral imperative. And that moral imperative is to reunite the families and restore them to the fullest capacity that we, as the United States government, can do. And I should say that we are not doing it alone.
We are working closely with counsel for the separated family members. We are doing it along with the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. I spoke with the foreign minister of each of those countries this past Friday. We are doing it with non-governmental organizations, and we intend to and will shortly harness the capabilities, resources, and desire of the private sector. This is not only an all-of-government, but all-of-society effort to do what is right.
We are hoping to reunite the families, either here or in the country of origin. We hope to be in a position to give them the election. And if, in fact, they seek to reunite here in the United States, we will explore lawful pathways for them to remain in the United States and to address the family needs. So we are acting as restoratively as possible.
I am very proud and excited to announce that we have hired Michelle Brané as the Executive Director of the Family Reunification Task Force. She began late last week. Most recently she served as the senior director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program of the Women's Refugee Commission. She has dedicated her entire career to human rights, and she is an extraordinary talent that will bring justice and results to this effort, along with the resources of the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services, and every other member of the federal government that has resources to bring to bear.
It is because of the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security and across the federal enterprise that we will dig out of the cruelty of the past administration, and we will rebuild our nation's asylum system and all of our humanitarian programs, of which we have been, historically, so proud as a leader in the world.
And with that, Jen. I'm pleased to take questions.
Great. Zeke, want to kick it off?
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