Joe Biden

Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Olivia Dalton and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas

February 29, 2024

En Route Brownsville, Texas

1:36 P.M. EST

MS. DALTON: Good afternoon. We're on our way to Brownsville, Texas, where President Biden will meet with Border Patrol agents, law enforcement officials, frontline personnel, and elected leaders, including Representative Gonzalez, who is headed down to Brownsville with us today.

Secretary Mayorkas is joining us to talk a little bit more about the latest on the ground.

But before I turn it over to him, I want to highlight just a few points. Earlier this month, congressional Republicans rejected the bipartisan border security agreement simply because the former President told them to. You heard President Biden say he would take this deal to the American people and make sure they know who is about political rhetoric and who is about solutions.

Today, there's new polling out showing Americans overwhelmingly support the bipartisan border security agreement, including a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. You will hear from the President as he continues to make the case that this bipartisan border security agreement would make our country safer, our border more secure, while ensuring we are treating people fairly and humanely, consistent with our nation's values.

And then I'll turn it over to you, Secretary.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: Thank you, Olivia. So, before I talk about today's operational briefing on the border, let me just say a few words about the fires in Texas and Oklahoma. The latest report is that --

Q: I'm sorry. We can't hear you.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: Oh, I'm sorry. The latest report is that over a million acres have burned, one life has been lost. We, in the Department of Homeland Security, especially FEMA, are intensely focused on these fires and providing the resources, equipment, and personnel that the impacted communities need.

We have Fire Management Assistance funds available to Texas and Oklahoma, and we also already have deployed firefighters, first responders, trucks, and other equipment to help fight the blazes.

Let me turn, then, to the -- to the visit to Brownsville, Texas. This is a very important operational briefing for the President as the Commander-in-Chief.

The President is going to hear from Border Patrol, Office of Field Operations, both within U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He's going to hear from Enforcement and Removal Operations and Homeland Security Investigations personnel in Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He is going to hear from asylum processing experts in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

He's going to hear about what they're able to do with the too-few resources that they have. He's going to hear about what they need and what impact, operationally, those additional needed resources would deliver. And he's going to hear about the incredible value and importance that the legislation would deliver if Congress passes it: more people, faster processing times, more technology, more equipment, more facilities.

Q: A --

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: If I can, Brownsville, Texas, provides a very good glimpse of how dynamic and challenging the migration phenomenon is. Last year, in April and May of 2023, approximately 30 percent of all encounters across the southern border were realized in the Rio Grande Valley Sector, of which Brownsville is a part.

Now, those numbers have been reduced significantly, primarily because of the enhanced law enforcement efforts south of our border.

The key is to address the regional challenge that is migration. We need regional participation not just on the part of the United States, of course, but on the part of our partners and allies to the south.

In this, Brownsville demonstrates the impact of that partnership when everyone's working together to address a shared challenge.

And now I'll turn it over.

Q: Can I follow up on that point? The head of the Border Patrol union said that Brownsville is actually not a place where the President will be able to evaluate what's going on because there are relatively fewer crossings comparative to other sectors.

So, is the President going to be able to get a fulsome evaluation of what is actually needed right now when it comes to the border by going to Brownsville?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: Yes. Yes, he will. I mean, Texas is seeing a reduction in encounters across -- across the board over what we experienced in December and immediately before then. The primary reason is the enhanced enforcement efforts on the part of the Mexican government.

The President had a conversation with the President of Mexico in December. Secretary Blinken and I, with our Homeland Security Advisor, visited Mexico. We spoke of the importance of really renewing their enforcement efforts. They did. We've seen a tremendous drop in the number of encounters across the southern border.

The most difficult part south of our border to patrol is Sonora, on the Mexican side, which is why Arizona -- the area of Arizona in Tucson continues to see an increase in -- in the number of encounters.

But the President will see firsthand what the Border Patrol needs and what the legislation would deliver if Congress would pass it.

Q: Is he -- Mr. Secretary, is he going to contrast his approach with that of Donald Trump, who's calling for mass deportations?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: This is focused -- this visit is focused on the work that we do, not the rhetoric of others. This is focused on operational needs, operational challenges, and the significant impact that legislation would have in enhancing our border security.

Q: Are there no executive actions that the President can take to reduce the number -- the large number of migrants that are coming to the U.S.-Mexico border that we saw in 2023 and continue this year?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: The fact of the matter is that the only enduring solution is legislation. Congress needs to act. We have a bipartisan piece of legislation that three senators worked on intensely for a number of months. I was very privileged to be at the table to provide technical and operational expertise. The administration was represented at the table. We need Congress to act.

Q: In lieu of the bill passing Congress, though, we've reported that the administration is considering using its 121-F [212-F] authority. Can you comment on that? Is that something the administration is considering? And will there be any executive action announced today at the border?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: There will not be any -- 212-F -- there will not be any executive actions announced today. As I continue to say, the legislation is what we need. It is the enduring solution. Actions taken outside of legislation are often met with litigation challenges in court.

Q: Do you think that would be the case with 212-F? Is this a power --

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: I don't want to speculate right now.

Q: Can you -- can you then speak to the relationship with Governor Abbott? Obviously, that's been multidimensional, to say the least.

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: One -- one of the -- one of the benefits -- one of the benefits of being in Brownsville is to see what can be accomplished productively in the service of border security when local officials work with federal officials to address a shared challenge. We have a very good relationship with the leaders in Brownsville. And the Border Patrol will speak to that to our president.

Q: And w- --

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: And -- and we will have local officials present in Brownsville.

So, when we work together, we have a better result in achieving what the American people expect and need.

When a state leader purposefully and deliberately refuses to cooperate, coordinate, collaborate, communicate, we see actually a detriment to our enforcement efforts.

Q: Can I ask what you think about his effort of busing migrants directly to other cities? What -- what has that done for the feds, for you guys --


Q: -- (inaudible) as well?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: It is a tragic thing when a public official uses human beings and their lives as political pawns.

Q: Can I just ask, with Congress back in session, what are you doing to prepare for the possible impeachment trial? And have you spoken to any lawmakers in Congress?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: I have been incredibly busy with the work of the Department of Homeland Security. That's my exclusive focus.

Q: Mr. Secretary, why are you -- why is the President and you -- why are you taking this visit now? What is the significance of this time of year? Is it just something that, you know, was able to be put on the President's schedule right now? Essentially, what I'm asking is: What's so special about this day at this time?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: We have a bipartisan piece of legislation that needs to pass to enhance our border security. The President continues to advocate to Congress that they must pass this bipartisan piece of legislation.

He is going to hear firsthand from the people who work tirelessly and bravely to secure the border the impact that this legislation would have on advancing their mission.

Q: And you also talked about -- you're talking about the resources that your agencies need. And in addition to the border legislation being dormant last night, so was the extra money that DHS was going to get.

Can DHS get the money that they need through the regular approps process that would end March 22nd at this point? Is that possible with all the help that you need right now?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: We desperately need the funds that the bipartisan legislation provides. We're talking about approximately $20 billion in funds. We're -- we are -- that provides for more than a thousand more U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel.

It calls for more than 4,000 asylum officers to meet the challenge of increased migration that is not only impacting the southern border of the United States, that is not only impacting the Western Hemisphere, but we are seeing this globally: the greatest number of displaced people around the world since World War Two.

So, those are -- it would provide for more than $400 million to -- to purchase and implement nonintrusive inspection technology, this state-of-the-art equipment that enables us to better detect and interdict fentanyl, contraband, and individuals who are being smuggled across the border through our ports of entry.

Q: (Inaudible) one more here. The makeup of people crossing has changed a lot. Why do you think that is? I mean, it's different source countries, different claimants, different grounds.


Q: Why is that happening? Why is it changing?

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: The demographics have changed significantly over the years. Traditionally --

Q: Even in the last, like, 12 months even. (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY MAYORKAS: It's mul- -- it's a number of years. Traditionally, the vast majority of individuals encountered were from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

We have seen country conditions throughout Latin America -- particularly Ecuador and Venezuela, for example -- diminish in quality, as well as country conditions around the world, whether it's in countries in Africa or elsewhere -- authoritarian regimes elsewhere. And by reason of that, we're seeing a level of migration around the world that is really historic.

And that has resulted in increased encounters at our southern border. And very interestingly, in my conversations -- bilateral and multilateral conversations with my counterparts from around the world over the last few weeks, when I discussed this with the Home Secretary in the United Kingdom, the first issue that arose was migration -- the migration challenge that the United Kingdom is facing and what they are seeking to do legislatively.

I spoke with the Home Secretary in Australia, and the number one Homeland Security issue that she raised was immigration. So, this is a global phenomenon that, of course, we are -- are experiencing ourselves.

MS. DALTON: Thank you so much, Secretary.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.


MS. DALTON: Do you have anything left?

Q: There's a lot.

Q: Can we get a -- I think right before we took off, the President talked to reporters on the South Lawn about reports of the hun- -- over a hundred dead in Gaza after -- can you tell us a little bit about it? Has the President been briefed on the situation? What's the latest?

MS. DALTON: Yes, he's been briefed on the situation. And I'd just like to make a few points about this. Obviously, the events in Northern Gaza are tremendously alarming and of deep concern to us -- deeply tragic, the loss of human life. Too many civilian lives have been lost as a consequence of military operations in Gaza.

We think that this latest event needs to be thoroughly investigated. We've been in touch with the government of Israel this morning about -- to gather information and to request that they investigate and provide more information about the circumstances that led to this tragedy.

We also think that this event underscores the need for expanded humanitarian aid to make its way into Gaza. You may be aware, our USAID Administrator, Samantha Power, is in the region right now doing just that: working on delivering additional resources, she announced yesterday, for humanitarian aid; also meeting with a variety of stakeholders in the region about trying to open up additional humanitarian corridors in addition to the two that are currently serving as corridors for humanitarian aid into the region.

But beyond that, you know, we have consistently and vocally communicated to our Israeli counterparts the need for there to be viable plans to maintain basic security in areas of Gaza where their military campaigns against -- and military operations against Hamas have concluded.

We have consistently also communicated a desire to see that those plans move forward. And we have yet to see those be implemented, and we're deeply concerned about that.

Once again, today we're making -- making clear to our Israeli counterparts that we'd like to see those plans implemented very soon and -- and provide for the basic security of the Palestinian people because the continued loss of life is deeply alarming and very -- very, very tragic.

Q: You kind of already said that the estimates for Monday for a ceasefire was optimistic. How does this affect that? And what -- I mean, does this give -- does this mean more pressure on Netanyahu to -- to back a ceasefire?

MS. DALTON: Well, what I would say to that is you heard from the President on the South Lawn just a few moments ago -- a couple hours ago, actually, now -- that certainly this will make things more complicated. But he is continuing to work aggressively toward a hostage deal that would involve at least a six-week ceasefire and help us expand the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. And, of course, we hope that would be the basis for something longer.

Since we've been in the air, we've released a couple of readouts of calls that the President made to the heads of state of Egypt and Qatar, where the tragedy that we all woke up to this morning was discussed; the need for a hostage deal and expanded humanitarian aid, temporary ceasefire was discussed.

The President is going to stay on every available opportunity to make headway in brokering a hostage deal and reaching a temporary ceasefire that could be the basis for something longer. He's going to keep at it.

Q: Does he plan to raise this directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu -- what happened on the food line?

MS. DALTON: I don't -- I don't have any calls to preview. But like I said, this was discussed in calls with -- that were on the books with the heads of state of Qatar and Egypt this morning. They had also discussed the -- the plans for -- work towards a hostage deal.

Q: But how seriously are you looking at the idea of an airdrop of humanitarian supplies into Gaza?

MS. DALTON: I don't have anything on that front to preview. But certainly, we're on the ground working -- right now working to expand the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Just yesterday, Administrator Power announced $53 million in additional assistance for humanitarian aid to go into Gaza. She's working on expanding the channels, the corridors through which that aid can flow. We're going to keep at this.

The events of this morning just underscored how deep and dire the humanitarian needs amongst civilian population in Gaza are right now.

Q: Olivia, there have been a number of administrative actions taken just over the course of the past few days targeting China. Why -- is it just a coincidence that these actions are targeting China over the span of a few days? What's the -- what's behind these actions?

MS. DALTON: Well, I think you're referring to the actions that the President announced this morning with respect to connected vehicles? Is this what you're talking about?

So, yes, the -- as you heard from the President this morning, the President is committed to ensuring that, you know, American automakers, American autoworkers are best positioned to outcompete the rest of the world in the years ahead. And he's also concerned about -- about countries like China. China is, right now --

(Air Force One experiences turbulence.) Sorry, guys, this turbulence might be a little much.

China is right now looking to flood the market here in the United States and around the world with vehicles equipped with advanced technology from countries of concern. And so, that is a security risk. That's a national security issue that we take very seriously. And it's the basis -- basis from which the President decided to direct the Commerce Department to review those national security risks and take any regulatory action they deem necessary to protect our people and our national security.

Q: What explanation -- going back to the -- the people killed while waiting for aid. What explanation have the Israelis given the U.S. as to what happened?

MS. DALTON: I -- I don't have any details to share on that. As you heard from the President, we're still working to get to ground truth, so I just don't want to get ahead of the preliminary reports.

Q: And a quick thing on that trip today. Will he meet with migrants?

MS. DALTON: I don't have anything on -- of that nature to preview for you. As you heard from the Secretary, this is really about hearing operational, on-the-ground updates from the law enforcement and border personnel who are on the frontlines of dealing with these challenges and who have been under-resourced and caught flat-footed as we've seen migration surge.

We currently, today, have the same number of Border Patrol agents as we had four years ago, despite the fact that migration has surged 250 percent. That is just simply unacceptable. It's a national security issue. And the President is really here to hear firsthand from the frontline personnel about what they're facing and what they need to do their jobs more effectively and keep us all -- keep our -- our border secure.

Q: And one more, if I may. Can --

AIDE: Can we just have you move forward because there's a bunch of people who wanted to use the restroom right here.

MS. DALTON: Oh, I'm so sorry. Can we just move --


Q: Can you give any preview of Prime Minister Meloni's visit to the White House tomorrow? And also, what -- you know -- you know, when the President has these meetings and conversations with people like Prime Minister Meloni and Chancellor Scholz, what kind of -- what can you say about the U.S. credibility beyond the fact that Republicans are holding up aid on Capitol Hill, when you do see Russian advances into Ukraine and Ukraine is badly outgunned and really need all these equipment? I mean, what -- beyond blaming Capitol Hill, like, what is -- what can you do to shore up U.S. credibility?

MS. DALTON: Well, look, the President has continued to aggressively make the case for Congress to patch -- to pass the national security supplemental. That is -- that is literally the only avenue through which we can provide Ukraine with the resources, the ammunition, the weaponry that they need to defend themselves against Russia's aggression.

There's no substitute for it. There's just no substitute for it. There's no mistaking that. It's -- it's a clear message the President has continued to send. It's a bipartisan message shared by many members across Capitol Hill.

And so, you know, we're going to continue to press Congress to act. Every day that we do not pass the supplemental is a good day for Russia and a bad day for Ukraine. And we can't let that stand.

Q: Can seized assets fill this gap at all?

MS. DALTON: Like I said --

Q: Seized Russian assets, obviously.

MS. DALTON: -- there's -- there's no substitute for -- for our ability to provide immediate resources through the national security supplemental to provide Ukraine with the weapons and ammunition that they need, like, right now. So, this is an urgent matter. It becomes more urgent by the day for the people of Ukraine.

And we're already seeing the impact of -- of this lapse. And we need to see Congress move immediately to put the national security supplemental on the President's desk, and he'll sign it.

Q: Do you have a sense of, like, the lag time between any bill being passed and actual munitions reaching Ukraine? You've got to make this stuff --

MS. DALTON: I don't have a --

Q: -- before you send it.

MS. DALTON: Yeah. I don't have a -- sort of a precise timeline for you. All I can say is that we'll move Heaven and Earth to get that assistance quickly out the door as soon as Congress sends a bill to the President's desk.

Q: Olivia, you blamed President Trump for the blockage or the derailing of the border compromise. Do you think that given that there is broad bipartisan support for Ukraine funding, does the President believe that the former President is a big part of why the Speaker has refused to bring the supplemental package to the floor?

MS. DALTON: I -- I can't provide a portal into those conversations. But look, there was a clean -- there was a -- there was clean support for Ukraine and Israel on the table and the House didn't act. So, you'll have to ask them why they didn't move on that.

But our message has been unmistakable and clear. We have sought the resources to -- to secure the border. We've sought the resources to equip Ukraine to defend itself, sought the resources for Israel to -- to defend itself against an exis- -- an existential terrorist threat from Hamas. And we are meeting inexplicably with continued resistance from the House Republicans.

And, you know, throughout this process, we've bent over backwards to try to extend in good faith a hand across the aisle. It's -- it's hard to explain.

Senate Republicans are working with us.

So, look, I can't -- I can't, again, provide a portal into the thinking of House Republicans right now. But it's obviously having a demonstrable impact on not just our national security but the security of partners and allies around the world.

Q: Does the administration support a discharge petition to get this supplemental on the floor of the House for an up-or-down vote?

MS. DALTON: Look, we always leave the mechanics of these congressional processes up to leadership in the House and the Senate, so, I won't weigh in on particular procedures.

What we think is important is that this legislation get to the President's desk immediately, and then he'll sign it.

Q: Does the President expect to learn anything new today when he hears from border personnel? Anything that might move the bill along or --

MS. DALTON: I think he'll -- I think he's likely to hear in vivid detail what it's meant that Border Patrol has re- -- you know, staffing has remained flat; that, you know, asylum judges are -- are just, you know, facing incredible backlogs; that ICE detention centers are well over capacity.

I think he'll hear directly on the ground from people who are on the front lines trying to secure our border without the resources they need to do their jobs. And having those stories and hearing those stories and taking them back to Washington will be an important part of his ability to tell the Ameri- -- American people who is responsible for holding up this critical assistance.

Q: Just on Israel and Gaza. The President told Seth Meyers on Monday that he's concerned that Israel is starting to lose support on the international stage. Does the event overnight sort of increase those fears among the administration? And will he convey that to the Prime Minister?

MS. DALTON: Well, I can't speak for other countries, but I can say that the President and the administration -- certainly, we've expressed our concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza, the mounting humanitarian crisis there, the need to surge resources into Gaza to address the extreme civilian harms that are occurring there. He's been unequivocal about that. The administration -- everybody in administration has been unequivocal about that and as -- you know, we've continued to communicate our concerns directly to Israel as recently as this morning in the wake of this tragic event.

Q: But if communicating those concerns hasn't moved the needle, is there any talk of withholding aid or changing the aid to Israel?

MS. DALTON: Look, Israel is also a sovereign nation that makes their sovereign decisions. We are vocal about our concerns. And I think, you know, it's also important to bear in mind that they're a -- a close ally. They'll remain a close ally. They are in the throes of an existential -- battling an existential crisis -- an existential threat to their existence from Hamas. And we're going to continue to support them in that process, even as we continue to make very, very, very clear our concerns about how this milit- -- how these military operations are prosecuted and our concerns that civilian life be protected at -- at every turn.

Q: Olivia, the administration often takes positions on Supreme Court cases. They file amicus briefs. There is a Supreme Court case involving President Biden's predecessor involving presidential immunity that will be heard by the Supreme Court the week of April the 22nd. Will the administration file an amicus brief on either side concerning that case?

MS. DALTON: We're not going to comment on the legal process here.

Q: Thank you.

MS. DALTON: All right. See you all on the ground.

Q: Thank you, Olivia.

2:03 P.M. EST

Joseph R. Biden, Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Olivia Dalton and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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