Republicans and Democrats spar over grounds for Mayorkas impeachment

House Republicans leading impeachment hearings for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas were met Wednesday with skepticism and fierce backlash from Democrats and legal experts, who claim there is no legal basis for impeaching him.

Rare impeachment hearings for a Cabinet-level official, which the House Homeland Security Committee launched Wednesday, are justified, Republicans said, because of record-high border crossing numbers and fentanyl coming across the southwest border. They noted that under Mayorkas, an appointee of President Joe Biden, 85% of migrants crossing are released into the U.S. rather than detained, compared to 10% during the Obama administration.

Republicans did not point out that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is actually holding more migrants in detention now than it did under the Obama administration. As of Dec. 31, 2023, ICE held about 37,000 migrants in custody, more than the max capacity of 34,000 migrants under the Obama administration, according to data from Syracuse University. Republicans are currently holding up increased funding for immigration detention space.

Under the Trump administration, and prior to the Covid pandemic, Congress mandated that ICE hold more migrants and as many as 56,000 migrants were held at one time. The Biden administration has requested more funding to build ICE detention capacity, but Republicans have not yet approved it.

Image: House Holds Hearing On Impeachment Of DHS Secretary Mayorkas
Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey and Frank O. Bowman III, professor emeritus of law, University of Missouri School of Law during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing at the Capitol on Jan. 10.Kent Nishimura / Getty Images

During Wednesday’s hearing, Texas Republican Mike McCaul, who chaired the committee for six years during the Obama and Trump administrations, said, “I’ve never seen this border more out of control.”

The last time a Cabinet-level official was impeached by the House of Representatives was during the Ulysses S. Grant administration, when Secretary of War William Belknap was impeached for promising an appointment to a man in return for over $20,000 in kickbacks.

Tennessee Republican Mark Green, current chair of the Homeland Security Committee, said that Mayorkas’ “refusal to change course on the reckless decisions facilitating this crisis have left us with no reasonable alternative than to pursue the possibility of impeachment.”

Republican state attorneys general from Montana, Oklahoma and Missouri all testified that Mayorkas was to blame for record-high levels of immigrants and fentanyl, a deadly drug that has claimed many lives in their states. 

But a constitutional lawyer called as a witness by Democrats, emeritus professor Frank Bowman of the University of Missouri School of Law, said he saw no evidence that would permit Mayorkas to be charged with “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which has historically been grounds for impeachment. 

He also cautioned the committee against using impeachment as a political weapon.

“Put simply, on one hand, even if successfully impeaching and removing a Cabinet officer could change the policy of a presidential administration, using impeachment for that purpose would be contrary to America’s constitutional design. On the other hand, given that removing a Cabinet secretary is profoundly unlikely to change policy, such an impeachment would almost certainly be futile,” Bowman said. 

Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, who previously chaired the committee and is now its ranking member, said the impeachment hearings for Mayorkas are “a shame” and “the height of hypocrisy” from Republicans. 

In the past year, Republicans have attempted to cut funding for the border in an attempt to protest Biden’s policies, and have not agreed to a supplemental funding request for more Border Patrol agents and expanded migrant detention capacity. Democrats on the committee said they should be spending their time solving the problems at the border rather than having more hearings criticizing Mayorkas.

“Same pig, different lipstick,” said committee member Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y., on Wednesday. “We are not calling it an impeachment hearing.”

In November, eight Republicans crossed the aisle to block an impeachment vote on the floor of the House against Mayorkas, an effort spearheaded by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. Instead, the matter was referred back to the committee. Mayorkas himself was absent from Wednesday’s hearing; Republicans have given him until the end of the day to say whether he will participate in next Wednesday’s hearing.