Office of Public Affairs
Secretary Mayorkas Delivers Remarks at the National Press Club
On September 9, 2021, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas delivered remarks at the National Press Club. See below for the Secretary’s delivered remarks:
Thank you so much, Lisa, and thank you all for giving me the opportunity to share some remarks. I want to start on a note of solemnity and resilience, and end on a note of generosity and hope, and in between speak of the challenges that we are facing and how we are addressing them, and what it says about who we are and who we want to be. And I want to make brief remarks so we leave as much time as possible for a conversation.
Yesterday at the Department of Homeland Security’s headquarters in St. Elizabeths we had a special ceremony. Shortly after 9/11, in the aftermath of that tragic day, amidst the rubble, a tree was found that was struggling, but still alive. And it was a Callery pear tree and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation took custody of the tree and rehabilitated it over the ensuing weeks and months and years, and it was termed the “survivor tree.” And when it produced a seed, a seed would be distributed to a community or a town that had unfortunately also suffered tremendous tragedy and loss.
Sadly, there are many of them, and the seeds have been distributed to them, whether it be Orlando, Newtown, Boston, Las Vegas, and many others. The seeds of that survivor tree have also been distributed to places of tribute and honor and memory. And we in the Department of Homeland Security, we’re extraordinarily privileged to receive a seed planted yesterday. And it speaks to the resilience of our country. And to that, to the fact that that resilience is born of the work and dedication of people across the country, including those in the Department of Homeland Security.
At this time in our country, two days from 9/11, we think, of course, of the lives that were lost on 9/11 2001 as a result of the tragedy, and we really doubled down on our commitment to ensure that this country, our American way of life, our principles are everlasting and we dedicate ourselves to that.
The Department of Homeland Security is facing extraordinary challenges now that grip our country and that are really uppermost in our nation’s mind. We have extreme weather events that are unprecedented in frequency and scale and speak of the disastrous consequences of climate change. We are observing a 300% increase over last year in the number and severity of ransomware attacks and it speaks of cybersecurity as a critical and urgent priority of ours. We are addressing, of course, the annual phenomenon of irregular migration, and the significant challenge at our Southern Border. And we are addressing a rise in domestic violent extremism, the most significant terrorism-related threat that we face in our homeland.
This in addition to the day-to-day work that we dedicate ourselves to, this in addition to the 2,285 community vaccination centers that FEMA—an agency within the Department of Homeland Security—stood up in our united battle against the pandemic, and, of course, this in addition now to the designation that the President made of the Department of Homeland Security as the lead federal agency in Operation Allies Welcome, the effort to resettle Afghan nationals here in the United States.
I am asked often how we do it all. Do we have the resources to manage through the challenges that our nation faces in the service of the mission, to which we are dedicated to keep the American public safe and secure? And the answer is a very straightforward one. We do because of the people that comprise the Department of Homeland Security. We do because of the extraordinary talent, dedication, and efforts of the men and women of our department.
Let me speak a little bit about each of the challenges that I have identified and how we are addressing them and what it says fundamentally about who we are and who we want to be. And let me start with the challenge of domestic violent extremism.
When the Department was first formed, the focus from a terrorism-related perspective was on the foreign terrorist fighter, the individual who was a resident abroad who sought to penetrate our defenses and do us harm here on the homeland. And we’ve built, of course, a system and processes to address that threat. Over the years that threat evolved and it became the homegrown violent extremists that was our most prominent threat on the homeland, with respect to the terrorist threat writ large. It was the individual already resident in the United States, who was radicalized by a foreign terrorist organization’s ideology, and sought to do us harm here on the homeland.
Now what we have seen over the past few years is that threat, once again, evolve. And now the threat is the domestic terrorist, the domestic violent extremists. The individual who is radicalized to violence by reason of an ideology of hate or false narratives that are propagated on social media or other online platforms. And one thing is very important to remember as we have observed the terrorism-related threat evolve throughout the years, and that is that its prior iteration has not disappeared from our threat landscape. The fact that one threat becomes more prominent—the threat evolves and a particular brand of that threat becomes most prominent—does not mean that its prior iteration has disappeared. We remain focused on the foreign terrorist, we remain focused on the homegrown violent extremists, but we also must adapt our systems and processes, as we do to the new threat that has emerged or has increased in prominence.
And so when people speak of the situation in Afghanistan and ask questions about what that means for the threat landscape, and do we have to build new processes and systems, should the threat of al Qaeda rise in prominence. Once again, the answer is no, because we have never dismantled or weakened the systems that we built then, we have only added to them so that we are as dynamic as the threat landscape we confront and that we are dedicated to address in the safety and security of our homeland.
One thing that we are doing now that might be different than what has been done in the past is the manner in which we are addressing the domestic violent extremists, the domestic terrorist threat. When that thread was the threat of homegrown violent extremism, we developed a program called Countering Violent Extremism. And we went into the communities to assist those communities in countering the threat. But what we learned is that we had challenges in overcoming issues of trust and really building a partnership as vibrant and strong as what was needed. And so as we tackle the threat of domestic terrorism, our model is a bit different. What we are doing—and this is because fundamentally the Department is an organization of partnerships—what we are doing is focusing on equipping and empowering the local communities to identify the threat before it materializes and prevent it from ever occurring or ever being realized. And if, sadly, the threat does materialize, to be resilient in withstanding it.
And so, how has that manifested itself? Let me give two brief examples. Number one, for the first time ever, our FEMA grant programs to local jurisdictions have included the requirement that a certain percentage of those funds that had community receives—7.5 percent—be dedicated to the fight against domestic violent extremism. Number one. And number two, we have created the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnership to really build on that concept of partnership to disseminate information to state, local, tribal, and territorial officials so that they are equipped with real-time actionable information to address the threat as it emerges. And so we’re focused on empowering and equipping, we’re focused on partnership.
The issue of extreme weather events. We of course have suffered hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, fires in this country before but the frequency of these events is greater than ever. And we are seeing their severity only increase. What is different about how we are tackling that, let me give one primary example, and it speaks of a value that we hold dear and it is the value of equity. The fourth estate, very correctly and necessarily communicated to us concern with respect to the manner in which individual assistance was provided to people, to members of communities, who had suffered from extreme weather events, and who by reason of past disenfranchisement, could not access the relief that we are equipped and empowered to provide.
For example, in minority communities, homes have been passed down for generations without the traditional paperwork that perhaps some of us might enjoy, a deed of trust, for example, documentary proof of ownership. And despite their ownership, in fact, they had difficulty accessing individual assistance because of that absence of documentation and paperwork. That is a bridge in the service of equity that we must cross. We must close that divide and indeed, by reason of this issue raising prominence, because of journalistic integrity, we have closed that divide. And we have crossed that bridge, and we have reformed our policies and practices so that no one is left disenfranchised from the individual assistance that we, as a matter of law are empowered to provide.
Cybersecurity and, specifically, ransomware, to which I alluded at the outset, and the extraordinary increase in its frequency and severity. But a month ago, a small group of hospitals were hit with ransomware that disabled their information systems and they were unable to provide critical care to patients and those patients had to be moved. The scourge of ransomware is extraordinarily significant, quite acute, and is something that we are treating with tremendous urgency. As a matter of fact, before the Colonial Pipeline attack that galvanized the American public’s attention, we began a 60-day sprint of focus on ransomware to raise awareness of it, to communicate practices that anyone can employ to guard against it, and we have launched StopRansomware.gov, a very innovative and novel one-stop shop for information for the American public to best defend against it.
This again, I think, is reflective of a core principle of partnership and an all-of-community effort to address one of the significant challenges we face on the homeland. And why is an all-of-community effort necessary with respect to ransomware and the cybersecurity threat writ large? Because in cybersecurity we say that we are only as strong as our weakest link and because of our interconnectedness, it is the responsibility of each and every person to enhance their cybersecurity so that our whole ecosystem is more secure.
Lastly, on the issue of the challenge of immigration and irregular immigration, specifically, of course. We have experienced surges many times before in our nation’s history. And in fact in the 21st century, 2005, 2009, 2014, 2019, and so on. We have experienced over the last four years prior to this administration a very different approach to irregular migration that defined the approach of the administration that preceded it. And we are very focused in the Department of Homeland Security to restoring the values of this nation and how we handle irregular migration and the individuals who seek refuge in the United States.
And I want to give two examples of it, and it speaks to our commitment to respect the dignity of every individual. We have changed the language that we use to refer to migrants who arrive in the United States and seek relief and who do not have yet lawful presence. We do not use the term “illegal alien” unless we are referring to that defined term in the statute itself, whether we are quoting from the statute or referring directly to it. We use the term “non-citizen.” In addition, no longer will the United States government accept substandard treatment of individuals in immigration detention and fail to respect the dignity that they—like any human being—have. And as a result, we have for the first time ever closed two immigration detention facilities that did not succeed in adhering to that core value.
Our vision for the Department is a Department that is nimble to address the dynamism of the threat landscape that we confront. To not only be prepared to address the threat that is before us, but to be nimble and dynamic, to be ready for the threat that might come one day that we do not yet see. To reestablish, also, the security of our values as well as to strengthen the security of our homeland. And let me then, in this regard, end on a note of generosity and hope because the challenges that we in the Department confront are, quite frankly, at the epicenter of the divide that this country is suffering and the divisiveness that we are enduring.
Our Department is privileged to have been designated as the lead federal agency in Operation Allies Welcome, the all-of-government and the public-private effort to resettle vulnerable Afghan nationals here in the United States. And what we have seen across the country is an extraordinary outpouring of generosity regardless of political party affiliation, and regardless of what one thinks of many of the issues I have discussed. It is not unanimity, by any means, but it is a united effort to extend this Nation’s generosity in its proud tradition of being a place of refuge.
Allow me to share two stories from my visit to Fort Lee, one of the military facilities where the vulnerable Afghan nationals reside until they are resettled into the communities across the country. First, I was able to meet one of the immigration officers at the military installation who was processing the paperwork of the Afghans. And this is an individual who in 2009 and 2010 himself had served in Afghanistan. And he had met during his time of service there an individual who provided him with interpretation support in Afghanistan, an individual who made his job successful, and he kept in touch with the Afghan interpreter over the course of the ensuing 10 years. And but two weeks ago, this immigration officer, which served in combat in Afghanistan, who would maintain communication with the interpreter who had worked side by side with him those 10, 11, 12 years earlier across the world, was able to process the immigration paperwork of the interpreter and his family as someone who our country had rescued and brought to safety here to the United States.
Every soldier whom I met at Fort Lee commented about how it was one of the proudest chapters in their careers of service to be a part of Operation Allies Welcome and to contribute to the effort. And they shared with me the fact that, as the Afghans disembark from the bus that has brought them to the military facility, the soldiers provide the children with an American flag. And when the children wave that flag, their fathers place their hands over their hearts in gratitude, in reverence, and out of respect for what our country has meant to them. And that is what we stand for and that is what we can the Department of Homeland Security, under the leadership of President Biden and with our sister agencies and departments across the federal enterprise and with communities across this country are so very proud to deliver to people in need.
Thanks so very much. Thank you so much.
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