Updated January 3, 2024 at 12:08 PM ET

Immigration is already shaping up to be a major campaign issue for Republicans, just days into the new year.

House Speaker Mike Johnson is leading a delegation of 60 House Republicans to the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday, his latest effort to push President Biden to crack down on immigration.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NPR ahead of the visit that he expects Johnson will see two things: the "heroic work" of U.S. Customs and Border Protection as well as "the result of a broken immigration system."

The situation at the border has become a central point of conflict between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Republicans have demanded action to address the flow of migrants as a condition for negotiations on major issues like funding for the war in Ukraine and as part of talks to avoid a government shutdown.

Johnson's border visit also comes as House Republicans are reviving a push to impeach Mayorkas over his handling of the border.

"The situation requires significant policy changes and House Republicans will continue advocating for real solutions that actually secure our border," Johnson tweeted the day before his trip to Eagle Pass, Texas.

Migrants showed up at the southern U.S. border in unprecedented numbers in 2023, reaching an all-time monthly high in December and fueling what some are calling a humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, Democratic officials in areas near Chicago and New York City are ramping up their efforts to stop Texas and other Republican states from bussing migrants to their cities, which are struggling to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers that have been sent there since 2022.

Republican lawmakers are blaming the Biden administration's immigration policy, which opens pathways to legal entry and expands temporary protected status, but also makes it harder for migrants who cross without documents to get asylum.

They are demanding that Biden further restrict migration as a condition for approving his requested aid to Israel and Ukraine, with a bipartisan group of senators now weeks into negotiating such a deal.

Mayorkas, who has been a key player in those conversations, told NPR he hopes Johnson's border visit will advance the talks.

"It is our hope that when he returns to Washington, he will join the bipartisan group of senators in delivering a legislative package for the American people that fixes a broken asylum system," Mayorkas told Morning Edition's Leila Fadel.

Shortly after their conversation, the Republican-led House Homeland Security Committee announced it will hold a hearing next Wednesday titled "Havoc in the Heartland: How Secretary Mayorkas' Failed Leadership Has Impacted the States."

The effort to impeach Mayorkas over his policy decisions — which would be unprecedented — has been brewing since Republicans gained control of the House last year, but was stalled back in November. The Department of Homeland Security dismissed the move in a statement on Wednesday as "a harmful distraction" with "no valid basis."

When asked if he sees Republican lawmakers as good-faith partners in discussions about policy reform, Mayorkas didn't name names.

"It is incumbent upon leaders with the authority to deliver solutions for the American people to deliver those solutions," he said. "And we do have good faith, bipartisan senators working in earnest to formulate a solution to what is clearly a problem."

U.S. and Mexican officials met last week to discuss the crisis

Mayorkas was one of several top U.S. officials who traveled to Mexico City last week to discuss border policy with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

NPR's Eyder Peralta reported that the public statements that came out of the meeting were "nothing new," though both cabinets agreed to meet again in January.

Mayorkas told NPR that the meeting was "very productive." He said officials discussed factors to address the situation not only at the southern border but also "the challenge of displaced people across the entire hemisphere," which he said has reached unprecedented heights.

"We spoke of additional enforcement measures that Mexico can take, things that it could do in the south of its country, the work that it can do with other countries in the region to stem the flow of displaced people," he added.

He said they also covered what the two countries can do together to address smuggling organizations, advance lawful pathways for individuals and better deliver consequences for those who do not utilize them.

Mexico's priority appeared to be getting the U.S. to reopen several border crossings that it had closed for much of December due to the influx of migrants. Biden administration officials said Tuesday that they will reopen four crossings in California, Arizona and Texas — including Eagle Pass, where the Republican delegation is visiting.

Mayorkas defends Biden's efforts in a broken system

Immigrants rights groups have criticized the Biden administration for continuing certain Trump-era policies, like continuing construction of a border wall (the administration says it was mandated to use the already-appropriated funds).

But Mayorkas stressed that Biden has taken a "dramatically different" approach than his predecessor, including reunifying more than 700 families that had been separated at the border and rescinding the controversial Trump-era "public charge" rule.

"The fact that we deliver consequences for those who do not qualify for relief is a legal mandate that we enforce," Mayorkas said. "But to draw a comparison between this administration and the prior administration is a woeful error and does not do justice to the foundational principle that we are enforcing the laws of this country while adhering to the values that define us."

Still, he said, those efforts are taking place in a system that is "in desperate need of reform," noting that Biden has asked Congress for the money to pay thousands of additional Border Patrol agents, asylum officers, immigration judges and various technology upgrades.

That's why the ongoing Senate negotiations are so important, he added:

"It is certainly our hope and our trust that as House members visit Eagle Pass, Texas and see the magnitude of the challenge that our dedicated, heroic workforce faces every day that they will come back to Washington focused on solutions ... for all of the departments that are invested in the immigration system and for the American people."

The broadcast interview was produced by Shelby Hawkins and Iman Maani, and edited by Ally Schweitzer and Jacob Conrad.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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