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Homeland Security Secretary testifies as immigrant advocates race to pass new laws

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. Today, we got a possible preview of what a Republican majority in the House could mean for immigration policy. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testified on the Hill, facing some of the same House Republicans who have been calling for his impeachment over his handling of the southern border. NPR's Joel Rose is here to talk about that hearing and what the new Congress could mean for immigration policy. Hi, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so what did they press Mayorkas on today?

ROSE: Lots of questions were about border security and the record number of migrant apprehensions at the southern border last year, apprehensions that, by the way, remained very high in October as well. There were a few combative moments in the hearing today, particularly between Secretary Mayorkas and Representative Clay Higgins, a Republican from Louisiana, who asked a series of provocative questions, including, have you ever used your authority to suppress exculpatory evidence or to intimidate front line border agents? To which Mayorkas responded, I don't even know what you're referring to. And then this exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAY HIGGINS: It's been rumored, Secretary, that you're going to resign prior to January the 3. Is there any truth to those rumors?

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: That is a false rumor.

HIGGINS: All right. We look forward to seeing you in January.

ROSE: Higgins is one of a dozen Republicans who co-sponsored a resolution calling for Mayorkas's impeachment. So the threat was definitely there, although it was maybe a bit more subtle than in past hearings.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, I understand that these were the first public remarks by Secretary Mayorkas since a top U.S. border official resigned over the weekend. Did that resignation come up today?

ROSE: Not much. The commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection stepped down on Saturday, as you say. Chris Magnus had been in the job for less than a year. Magnus said last week that he was forced out of the job. Mayorkas was not asked about that today. One Republican congressman did applaud the move. But if Magnus's departure was supposed to alleviate concerns about the border, it clearly did not.

CHANG: Well, tell me this. You know, we heard a lot about the southern border before the midterm elections. Do we know how much this issue mattered to voters this cycle?

ROSE: It does not appear to have been a big voting issue. Republican candidates certainly talked about the border a lot in their campaigns and in their TV ads, but it doesn't seem to have moved the needle that much, even in contested races where it came up the most, for example, in Arizona. And that seems to underscore something, you know, we've seen for a while now. Concerns about immigration are not evenly spread across the electorate. Polls show that Republicans care a lot, but for most Democrats and independents, it is just not a top-tier issue.

CHANG: Well, then what do you think all of this means for immigration in the next Congress?

ROSE: I think it's still hard to say with the majority in leadership, you know, in flux. I think it's telling, though, that a lot of immigrant advocates are not waiting for the next Congress to find out. They are putting a serious effort into this lame duck session. A lot of immigrants and their advocates are coming to Washington this week. That includes so-called DREAMers who were brought to the country illegally as children. They're worried about losing their protections and their work permits if the courts rule that DACA is illegal, which looks likely. Also, dairy farmers and growers who want to see agriculture workforce reform and Afghan evacuees who are seeking a path to permanent legal status. But top Republicans have said they want to see enhancements to border security before anything else happens on immigration. So the odds of any deal coming together in these next few weeks are long. And, you know, they're probably not going to get much better in January.

CHANG: That is NPR's Joel Rose. Thank you, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.