WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress on Tuesday escalated their attacks against Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary whom House leaders have vowed to impeach, accusing him of bearing personal responsibility for the drug deaths of Americans and the rapes of migrant children, and repeatedly calling on him to step down.
Mr. Mayorkas’s first appearance before the new Congress underscored the depth of the partisan anger he is facing on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are intent on hammering at President Biden’s immigration policies and have singled out his top border official as a ripe target for condemnation.
“The deaths, the children assaulted, the children raped — they are at your feet, and if you had integrity, you would resign,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told Mr. Mayorkas in a particularly testy exchange during a hearing of the Judiciary Committee. Mr. Cruz repeatedly cut off the secretary while accusing him of letting murderers and rapists into the country and being “willing to let children be raped to follow political orders.”
“What the senator said was revolting. I’m not going to address it,” Mr. Mayorkas retorted, after Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and the chairman of the panel, gave him a chance to respond.
“Your refusal to do your job is revolting,” Mr. Cruz snapped back.
As the House G.O.P.’s top target for potential impeachment charges, Mr. Mayorkas is no stranger to Republican attacks, which are expected to continue on Wednesday when he is scheduled to appear before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. House Republicans have spent the early months of their new majority making successive trips to the U.S.-Mexico border to document evidence of what they call a spiraling “crisis” of illegal immigration and cross-border drug trade. They have pinned the blame on the homeland security secretary, whom they accuse of being either too clueless to do anything about it or malicious in his willingness to allow it to happen.
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Republicans’ angry tirades against Mr. Mayorkas, which come as he makes the rounds on Capitol Hill this week for annual budget hearings in which he is requesting additional resources for his department, quickly overwhelmed any substantive debate on immigration.
A discussion about the fentanyl epidemic that started as a bipartisan endeavor veered into partisan bickering after Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, blamed Mr. Mayorkas for American overdose deaths since he came into office.
“You should be fired, but you haven’t been fired because you were carrying out the policies of the Biden administration, and we’ve seen nothing but death and destruction as a result,” Mr. Cornyn said. He demanded that Mr. Mayorkas “apologize to these parents who lost their children because of fentanyl poisoning, because of the policies of your department and the Biden administration.”
Mr. Mayorkas, during the rare moments when he could get a word in, scrambled to counter the criticism with statistics. He said that customs officials had been “seizing record amounts of fentanyl at our ports of entry,” where “approximately 90 percent” of such shipments enter the United States. He noted that the department was “surging resources” to those ports of entry to increase those interdictions.
Democrats also swept in to defend him.
“This problem did not start under Joe Biden,” said Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, responding to Mr. Cornyn’s charges by noting that fentanyl deaths had risen under the Trump administration. He said fentanyl imports were “overwhelmingly” being brought into the United States by Americans coming through ports of entry.
“We can have whoever happens to be the secretary of homeland security, bring him in and beat him up, or we could do our job,” Senator Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont, said.
But most Republican senators on the panel were more interested in grilling Mr. Mayorkas than in discussing potential improvements to border security. Several also demanded that the secretary account for an apparent discrepancy between his previous testimony to Congress that the border was operationally secure, and that of Raul L. Ortiz, the Border Patrol chief, who told a House panel earlier this month that it was not.
“With respect to the definition of operational control, I do not use the definition that appears in the Secure Fence Act,” Mr. Mayorkas told the panel, referring to a 2006 statute that defines the phrase as “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States.” In his testimony, Mr. Ortiz had been asked to define border security under that definition.
The Border Patrol has long used a different standard of “operational control” that is defined as “the ability to detect, respond and interdict border penetrations in areas deemed as high priority” — one that Mr. Mayorkas suggested he had been referring to in his previous testimony.
“The way I define it is maximizing the resources we have to deliver effective results,” Mr. Mayorkas continued.
But that too set off Republicans, who suggested that Mr. Mayorkas should be removed for seeking to change the definitions of laws he is sworn to enforce.
“Your department has spent an inordinate amount of money preparing for impeachment proceedings,” Senator Mike Lee of Utah said. “Could it be perhaps that they know that you have been doing this — that you’ve been redefining statutory terms, failing to enforce the law? That seems removable to me.”