Homeland Security chief says U.S.-Mexico border not open

FILE PHOTO: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas looks up during a Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on the department's budget request on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 26, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -U.S. Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas said on Tuesday the U.S. southern border is not open to irregular migration, adding the Biden administration is developing "lawful pathways" aimed at slowing the flow of people at the border.

The Homeland Security secretary's remarks during a visit to Mexico City come amid months of high migration that has become an early policy challenge for U.S. President Joe Biden, as hundreds of thousands of people flee violence and poverty in Central America and parts of Mexico.

Mayorkas said both Mexico and the United States were working to curtail irregular migration.

"We have challenged one another," he told a news conference. "It's not just a question of the U.S. asking of Mexico, it's a matter of what we both can do."

Echoing Vice President Kamala Harris's comments to migrants during a visit to Guatemala last week, he said the government has sent a clear message to migrants: "Do not come."

He emphasized that the government is working on alternatives he described as "lawful pathways," listing programs such as temporary worker visas and U.S. investment to tackle violence, corruption and weak economies in the countries with high migration rates.

"We are devoted and dedicated to bringing different types of relief," Mayorkas said.

Critics said the U.S. government was sending mixed messages that could fuel further migration, after Harris described the United States as a safe haven for asylum seekers only days after warning migrants they would be turned back at the border.

Mayorkas noted that Title 42, a COVID-19 health order implemented under former U.S. President Donald Trump to slow migration during the pandemic, would remain in place as long as needed for public health reasons.

Biden has faced growing pressure from migrant advocates and health experts to end the policy as more evidence emerges that migrants are being expelled into danger in Mexico.

Mayorkas added that his department would be prepared to address border issues once the order is lifted.

"It's not a tool of immigration policy," he said.

In meetings with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and other top Mexican officials, Mayorkas also discussed speeding up vaccinations at the border amid efforts to phase out pandemic-related travel restrictions.

The United States is not considering requiring a so-called vaccine passport for crossings, he said.

Biden on Tuesday picked Latino lawyer and former U.S. senator Ken Salazar as ambassador for Mexico, whose role includes working to limit migration from Central America.

Salazar in 2017 criticized Trump's migration policies, saying border relations were about "building trust, not walls."

Trump on Tuesday said he would visit the Texas-Mexico border this month with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, after both complained about a rise in migrants crossing into the United States.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Writing by Anthony Esposito and Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Sephen Coates)

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