The incoming Biden administration will work "to cease funding for further construction" of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, who told senators Tuesday that U.S. law will dictate whether individuals in migrant caravans are allowed to remain in the United States.
Mayorkas appeared for his Senate confirmation hearing one day after reports surfaced that Biden intends to propose an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants shortly after taking office Wednesday, signaling an immediate focus on a topic that has both consumed and paralyzed Congress for decades.
Republican lawmakers pressed Mayorkas on whether the Biden administration would spend $1.4 billion that Congress appropriated late last year to continue border wall construction, one of President Donald Trump's top priorities that has been fiercely opposed by Democrats, including President-elect Joe Biden.
Mayorkas said he would examine whether existing funds must be spent and underscored Biden's opposition to further wall appropriations. He did not signal any intention by the incoming administration to tear down wall sections already built.
The hearing came as a caravan of Central American migrants pushes north toward the United States. Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah asked Mayorkas if the caravan would be allowed to enter the United States or turned back at the border.
"We are a nation of immigrants and we are also a nation of laws, and I intend to apply the law," the Cuban-born Mayorkas responded. "If people qualify under the law to remain in the United States, then we will apply the law accordingly. If they do not qualify to remain in the United States, then they won't."
The nominee rejected calls by progressive elements of the Democratic coalition that helped elect Biden to defund U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency within DHS that, among other duties, carries out deportations of undocumented immigrants.
Alejandro Mayorkas, nominee to be Secretary of Homeland Security, testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 19, 2021.
2015 DHS inspector general's report
The hearing lasted more than two hours and featured repeated questions about Mayorkas' role in the granting of U.S. visas to wealthy foreign investors when he served as director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) during the former Obama administration. A 2015 DHS inspector general's report concluded that Mayorkas intervened in the EB-5 investor program at the behest of some powerful Democrats in a way that "created an appearance of favoritism and special access."
Mayorkas noted that the report found no legal wrongdoing.
"The inspector general did not take issue with the disposition of the cases in which I became involved because I studied the law, and I followed the facts, and that is my North Star. And it always has been. And any suggestion to the contrary, is incorrect," Mayorkas said.
DHS after Capitol riot
If confirmed, Mayorkas would be the first Latino and first immigrant to lead that Department of Homeland Security. In addition to leading USCIS, he served as Obama's deputy secretary of DHS, the third-largest federal agency in the nation.
DHS was created after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, a period when threats originating abroad were seen as paramount.
Addressing the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol carried out by Trump loyalists, Mayorkas expressed horror and said authorities have yet to learn everything that happened that day.
He vowed to "do everything" to ensure that "the tragic loss of life, the assault on law enforcement, the desecration of the building that stands as one of the three pillars of our democracy, the terror that you felt your colleagues, staff and everyone present will not happen again."