House Republicans are rallying around a push to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Only once in history has the House impeached a Cabinet official.
Some Republicans have cautioned that impeaching Mayorkas would establish a dangerous precedent.
House Republicans are livid about illegal immigration. While they have torn into President Joe Biden over the topic, lawmakers are set to press their thin majority to push the first impeachment of a Cabinet officer in nearly 150 years.
On Wednesday, House Republicans are set to consider the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Conservatives have criticized Mayorkas for months, leading Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia to try to force her colleagues to vote on the matter in November. At that time, eight Republicans joined House Democrats in punting the matter.
Since then, more centrist lawmakers, including those representing districts Biden won in 2020, have signaled they are open to the effort. One of the eight November holdouts, Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, told CNN she would back Mayorkas’ impeachment if it came through a committee.
“From the far right and the Freedom Caucus to those more moderate, we have all been a part of this,” Republican Rep. Anthony D’Esposito of New York told CNN. “We’ve all asked the tough questions, and I think we are at a point, and I believe that the American people agree with us, that Mayorkas needs to be impeached and we need to find quality leadership to lead Homeland Security.”
According to multiple reports, Republicans are likely to centralize their push in the Homeland Security Committee, a departure from the usual tradition of impeachment originating in the House Judiciary Committee. The move underlines how Republicans are both pushing multiple potential impeachments at once (Biden’s impeachment inquiry is partially based in the Judiciary panel) and how party leaders are trying to avoid potential holdouts that could scuttle their efforts.
Why are Republicans attacking Mayorkas?
As Homeland Security secretary, Mayorkas oversees a vast agency that includes U.S. Customs and Border Protection. As a result, the GOP has tried to make him the poster boy for what they view as Biden’s failed immigration policies.
House Speaker Mike Johnson, who recently led a Republican delegation to the border, has said the situation is “a humanitarian catastrophe” with major national security concerns. Rep. Mark Green, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, has argued that Mayorkas has violated his oath of office. Green has gone as far as to say, “Hamas can walk just right in.” (The issue of terrorism is a lot more complicated, as you’ll see below.)
Politically, Republicans also view the issue as a winner. A CBS poll released over the weekend found that views of Biden’s handling of immigration are at an all-time low. Democratic mayors and governors have also complained to the White House in the wake of Republicans sending waves of migrants to their cities.
What is the situation at the border like?
It’s undeniable there is a crisis at the border. 2023 ended with a record number of encounters, 10,000 people per day along the border.
“The numbers we are seeing now are unprecedented,” Troy Miller, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told The Washington Post.
US Customs and Border Protection says more than 2.3 million migrants have been released into the US at the southern border under Biden’s watch, The Post reported. Republicans often cite the more than 6 million people that have been taken into custody, a much different measure.
There is some debate about how the current situation compares. Politifact pointed out that there are some caveats to comparing the record-high influx under Biden to the past. The context is important, especially when comparing Trump and Biden administration data which measures “encounters” as opposed to “apprehensions.” Immigration patterns, including who is trying to come into the US and how often they attempt to cross the border, have also changed. As NPR previously pointed out, the number of migrants making repeat attempts has skyrocketed. This means that when it comes to encounters, a single person could be responsible for multiple encounters if they repeatedly try to enter the US.
As for the terrorism claims, Republicans are basing their fears on the terrorism watchlist. Once a more narrow set of names, as CBS News detailed the list has become a sweeping database that now includes roughly 2 million people. Johnson and other Republicans have pointed to the 312 migrants (it’s now 326) out of the more than 6 million that federal officials have caught from October 2020 to now that match the names of people on the list. As The New York Times noted, just because someone matches a name on the list doesn’t mean they are a guaranteed terrorist. The Homeland Security Department notes that for all these reasons apprehending a migrant on the watchlist is extremely rare.
What is the White House saying?
The White House has said the US immigration system has been “broken for decades.” In a lengthy memo released on Tuesday, the Biden administration also directly defended Mayorkas, pointing out that he is trying to work to improve the situation by pushing for $14 billion in additional border security funding on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, Republicans are pushing for his impeachment.
“Secretary Mayorkas is working across the aisle to find bipartisan solutions for the border, but House Republicans are attacking him with a baseless and extreme political stunt to distract from their refusal to fund the critical border needs Mayorkas and the President have asked for,” the White House said in a memo obtained by Politico.
A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said in a statement that there is simply “no valid basis” to impeach Mayorkas.
“The House majority is wasting valuable time and taxpayer dollars pursuing a baseless political exercise that has been rejected by members of both parties and already failed on a bipartisan vote,” DHS spokesperson Mia Ehrenberg said.
Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security panel, accused Republicans of being “AWOL” from bipartisan Senate discussions that would pair the border security money and other potential immigration law changes with funding for Ukraine’s war against Russia.
“The extreme MAGA impeachment scheme is nothing more than a political stunt without any foundation in the Constitution,” Thompson said in a statement to Business Insider. “These hearings are not part of any legitimate investigation – they’re an extreme MAGA spectacle.”
According to Politico, Johnson has been briefed by some lawmakers on the talks.
Has a Cabinet secretary been impeached before?
In its entire history, the House has only ever impeached one Cabinet secretary: former Secretary of War William Belknap under the Grant administration. Lawmakers accused Belknap of taking bribes to finance a lavish lifestyle while living on a meager government salary. In the face of his likely ouster, the former Civil War general rushed to the White House to hand President Ulysses S. Grant his resignation.
The House still impeached Belknap, though he was acquitted during a Senate trial. The core of Belknap’s defense was that he was technically a private citizen both at the time of his impeachment (by just minutes) and during his monthslong trial. If that sounds familiar, it’s because former President Donald Trump and most Senate Republicans made a similar defense during Trump’s trial following the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
What happens next?
Republicans will need to draft formal article(s) of impeachment. It’s not clear what grounds they will charge Mayorkas on. As you probably know by heart now, the Constitution sets forth charges of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Ultimately though, House lawmakers decide what constitutes an impeachable offense. If Republicans use Greene’s article as inspiration, their charge would be based on “a pattern of conduct incompatible with his duties as a civil officer of the United States.”
Is this guaranteed to happen?
Not necessarily. Some Republicans, including Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, have argued that Mayorkas has not met the bar for impeachment.
“Secretary Mayorkas did not commit an impeachable offense. Despite my strong disagreement with his handling of our southern border, which puts this country at grave risk, he is not guilty of high crimes or misdemeanors,” Buck wrote on Twitter in November.
The skeptical Republicans say that impeaching a Cabinet official for essentially doing a poor job or for taking policies Congress doesn’t like would establish a terrible precedent.
“If Greene is successful in redefining impeachment, then the next time Democrats have the majority, we can expect this new definition to be turned against the conservatives on the Supreme Court and any future Republican administration,” Rep. Tom McClintock of California said in November in a lengthy statement. “And there will be nobody to stop them, because Republicans will have signed off on this new and unconstitutional abuse of power.”
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