As House Republicans prepare to hold a majority in the next Congress, some are planning to follow through on their promise to investigate and impeach Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for his handling of the United States-Mexico border.
Republicans have long threatened to impeach Mayorkas, and as January approaches, the state of the border is becoming increasingly complex as diverse populations of people are arriving and the Biden Administration faces the end of a controversial Trump-era policy that largely prevented most people from making asylum claims.
“Our country may never recover from Secretary Mayorkas’ dereliction of duty,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Nov. 22 during a visit to El Paso, Texas. He called on Mayorkas to resign, or else “House Republicans will investigate every order, every action, and every failure will determine whether we can begin an impeachment inquiry.”
That would be an extraordinary step. In all of U.S. history, only one cabinet member has been impeached, and he was ultimately acquitted of all charges. It isn’t clear that Mayorkas has committed an impeachable offense, and Republicans have not alleged specific conduct they believe could qualify as treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors. But Republicans say launching investigations into the secretary could lead to an impeachment inquiry.
“Oversight is a clear responsibility of the Congress. That’s why we have three branches, so that there are checks on executive authority, but this is taking it to a nuclear option,” says Doris Meissner, senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan research organization. “This is political theater.”
DHS oversees U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S Border Patrol, the agencies in charge of administering and enforcing immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. For roughly three decades, immigration law has not been updated or reformed by Congress in a way that allows these agencies to efficiently process people who arrive at the border without proper authority, says Meissner. In that time, DHS has relied on executive powers to address urgent needs at the border.
During the Trump Administration, the executive branch used its power to create or implement rules like the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, that forced people with open asylum cases to wait out the duration of their case in Mexico, and Title 42, a health measure that the government has used since 2020 to immediately expel certain people who arrive at the border in the name of mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
Since President Joe Biden took office, DHS has also changed its immigration rules using executive authority in an attempt to manage the increasing number of people arriving at the border. In response, Republicans declared a “crisis” at the border under Mayorkas and began to call for his impeachment.
DHS did not respond to TIME’s request for comment, and neither did Congressman Jim Jordan, a Republican and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, which would oversee impeachment efforts. The office of Congressman James Comer, a Republican and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, declined to make the congressman available for an interview, and did not respond when asked specifically what conduct by Mayorkas he believes could constitute impeachable offenses.
“Leader McCarthy is right,” Jordan said in a Nov. 22 public statement. “Americans deserve accountability for the unprecedented crisis on the southwest border. Republicans will hold Secretary Mayorkas accountable for his failure to enforce immigration law and secure the border through all means necessary.”
In May, Mayorkas told CNN that he wasn’t concerned about McCarthy’s calls for impeachment. “I am incredibly proud to work with 250,000 dedicated and talented personnel, and I look forward to continuing to do so,” he said.
But starting next year, House Republicans will hold the power to begin acting on their comments.
‘We’re going to come after Mayorkas’
In recent years, the border has become increasingly complicated as the population of people arriving has diversified and grown.
In the 2000s, most people who arrived at the border were Mexican men traveling alone and hoping to find work in the U.S.—people the government could relatively easily process and deport if necessary. Now, most of the people arriving at the border are families, including women and children, from Central America, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and other regions of the world, who are looking for asylum in the U.S. The type and number of people arriving, coupled with a record-high immigration court backlog, complicate DHS’s ability to handle the increase of people. Meanwhile DHS’s executive actions aimed at either undoing some of Trump’s border policies or managing who can legally enter the country to make a claim for asylum have been met with lawsuits, blocked, reinstated, and expanded in a trend that has caused “peak confusion” at the border, as Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of Immigration and Cross-Border Policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, told TIME in April.
Present migration patterns are unprecedented, and Republican lawmakers have not only criticized Mayorkas’ handling of the border, but blamed him and the Biden Administration for the high rate of apprehensions at the border and increases of illegal drugs smuggled across by organized crime groups. They have also criticized Mayorkas’ attempts to end some Trump-era immigration rules and actions, including MPP, which affected over 71,000 people during Donald Trump’s presidency.
All of this has culminated in calls for investigations and Mayorkas’s impeachment. In an interview with Fox News on Nov. 27, Congressman Ronny Jackson, a Republican from Texas, said Congress would “absolutely” impeach Mayorkas. “Mayorkas has got to go, so we’re going to start the process of investigating him. We’re going to investigate every decision he has made. We’re going to use the power of subpoena, we’re going to use the power of the purse, and we’re going to come after Mayorkas.”
In mid-November, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Mayorkas requesting documents and said they will require testimony from DHS employees, including Mayorkas, during hearings and investigations next year.
Congressman Tony Gonzales, a Texas Republican who represents the largest stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in Congress, tells TIME his experience in his own district informs his desire to investigate Mayorkas. “I don’t get the luxury of just getting up there and grandstanding,” Gonzales says. “People in my district demand actions, and they’re going, ‘I don’t care that you’re in the minority, Tony, I don’t care that you’re finishing up your first term. We don’t care about any of that, we need this to stop.’”
He says that in Eagle Pass, Texas, for example, constituents’ daily lives are often interrupted by what takes place at the border—schools go into lockdown because of nearby Border Patrol chases of migrants who have crossed the border illegally, or people will interrupt their routines to come to the aid of migrants who need money or food. In August of 2020, CBP’s Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, saw about 5,100 apprehensions at the border, but in August of 2022, apprehensions (which include Title 42 expulsions) rose to more than 52,000.
“My district is very compassionate, so the people will give their shirt off their back for others,” Gonzales says. “I’ve seen this crisis go from people that would view these migrants through their grandparents’ eyes and have empathy, [who] are now viewing migrants that are coming over—mainly because of the sheer numbers—as a threat to their livelihood.”
As Republicans in Congress seek answers and accountability from DHS, some experts say they instead should be looking at their own institution, which has failed to pass meaningful immigration reform for years. Promising to investigate or impeach Mayorkas “takes the spotlight off of the Congress and pushes it onto the executive branch,” Meissner says, “when the spotlight should be on the Congress.”