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  4. Secretary Mayorkas Delivers Remarks at the 92nd Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors

Secretary Mayorkas Delivers Remarks at the 92nd Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors

Release Date: January 18, 2024

Secretary Mayorkas delivered the following remarks in his keynote address to the 92nd Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. 

Good afternoon. 

If I talked about a small group of wealthy Georgia landowners who conspired to kidnap hundreds of people and force them to dig onions with their bare hands for 12 or 15 hours a day without pay; if I said that these victims were housed in unsanitary conditions, beaten, raped, murdered, and prevented from fleeing at gunpoint, all while the perpetrators made millions off their inhumane scheme – you could be forgiven for assuming I was speaking of slavery in the pre-Civil War South. 

I am not. Such horrific, monstrous situations are still found in the darkest shadows of our country. What I just described was a human and labor trafficking operation that we dismantled only two years ago, in a collaborative law enforcement effort dubbed Operation Blue Onion. When I say “we,” I mean the Department of Homeland Security’s human trafficking experts, researchers, investigators, and case workers – agents from Homeland Security Investigations, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, working alongside and closely with five county Sheriffs’ offices in the region, plus other state and federal partners. 

I have spoken with many of you about the increasing frequency and gravity of extreme weather events. Last year, I spoke to this Conference about the devastating tornado that struck Mayfield, Kentucky; about the 80 lives lost and the $3.5 billion in damages that resulted; and about the work we performed, through FEMA, with Mayor O’Nan and her community – a community of residents with great strength, resolve, and perseverance. 

Many other natural disasters that have struck us since. This past August, wildfires ravaged more than 17,000 acres on the island of Maui, killing 100 people, destroying 2,207 buildings, and causing $5.5 billion in damages, making it the fifth-deadliest wildfire in our country’s history. Working closely, every day, with Mayor Bissen, more than 1,000 FEMA personnel were on the ground supporting survivors in Maui, including members of its Disaster Survivor Assistance teams. Hawaii received more than $200 million in federal funding, including more than $100 million in direct assistance to survivors, and we made more than 50,000 meals, 75,000 liters of water, 5,000 cots, and 10,000 blankets and shelter supplies available to survivors. The work – by Mayor Bissen, local and state officials, and our Department – continues. The removal of hazardous material and debris, the rebuilding of homes, offices, and lives – one cannot do it alone. There is a lot more work to do, and we are doing it together. 

A few days after Thanksgiving, local officials in Las Vegas received a tip – a particularly troubling tip in light of the significant nationwide increase in threats against Jewish, Muslim, and Arab-American communities following Hamas’s terrorist attack against Israel on October 7. A 16-year-old boy had posted on social media that he would be commencing lone wolf operations in Las Vegas, adding that he was a supporter of the Islamic State and would make sure the Zionists in the city knew it. The City of Las Vegas and its Metropolitan Police Department asked the Department of Homeland Security and our federal partners to immediately assist in their investigation, through the local Southern Nevada Counterterrorism Fusion Center and Joint Terrorism Task Force.  

Working together, it took the joint operation only hours to locate the suspect. A tactical team then took the suspect into custody without incident. In his possession, they found components for building an improvised explosive device and bomb making recipes, along with significant amounts of ISIS propaganda. 

Human trafficking, extreme weather, domestic violent extremism – just three of the unique homeland security threats that each demand our coordinated efforts.  

Our country’s ability to successfully mitigate every challenge to its safety and security has always required close collaboration and good faith cooperation between all levels of government. This is particularly true with regard to our nation’s cities, where our partnership with many of you, your teams, and your local stakeholders has saved lives, and has also saved time and money. 

Early last year, in the midst of a particularly difficult surge in violent crime, local Baltimore officials asked Agents of DHS’s Homeland Security Investigations to partner with them on a crime suppression operation. For six weeks, members of HSI’s public safety unit worked arm-in-arm with the Baltimore Police Department’s intelligence unit and state officials, helping to make 45 criminal arrests on murder, rape, home invasion, theft, and other violent felony charges, as well as significant seizures of fentanyl, heroin, crack cocaine, and illegal firearms. One of the men arrested as part of the Operation was wanted for attempted murder after an alleged targeted shooting of a witness set to testify in a separate violent crime case. The partnership between local and federal law enforcement was key to Baltimore’s almost 20% reduction in homicides and 9% reduction in non-fatal shootings last year.

So many of us have experienced the crippling effects of a cyberattack. Bad actors – criminals and adverse nation-states alike – have increasingly targeted and damaged hospitals, electricity substations, pipelines, water treatment facilities, and other elements of our nation’s critical infrastructure. When malicious actors hacked the Cornelius, North Carolina Police Department in July, DHS, through its Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, worked with local officials to flag unusual network activity, identify that a piece of malware was responsible, isolate the virus, contain it before it could cause significant damage or pose a greater risk, and, ultimately, investigate its origins to prevent other infrastructure from falling victim. In that case, our collaboration with local officials prevented serious harm from ever occurring. 

These stories, and many others like them across the country, demonstrate more than the enormous breadth, diversity, and dynamic nature of the mission of the United States Department of Homeland Security. They demonstrate the power of partnership and the critical need for it. 

As mayors within counties and states, in states that form one nation, you know that no government can operate effectively in a silo. And you know that, when we shun collaboration and reject coordination, and when we treat each other as adversaries, not allies, the harmful results speak for themselves.  

Nowhere is this more evident than in our efforts to tackle the significant challenges at our southern border, where the level of migrant encounters is high. The collaboration and coordination that is needed is not only between federal, state, and local officials. It is also between us and Congress, as we work to fix what everyone agrees is a broken immigration system that has needed legislative repair for decades.  

The needed collaboration and coordination is also between us and our international partners. What we are experiencing at our southern border reflects a challenge that is not unique to our border, but is one that countries throughout our region and throughout our Hemisphere are confronting. The regional challenge requires regional solutions.  

DHS was founded in the wake of 9/11 and charged with facilitating the inter- and intra-governmental cooperation necessary to prevent another such terrorist attack against our homeland. In the 20 years since, the threat environment that our country faces, and that our Department must confront, has evolved and expanded dramatically: foreign terrorism, transnational criminal organizations, and lone offenders; the scourge of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids that has been building for years; cybersecurity threats and internet-enabled crimes; the increasing aggressiveness of adverse nation-states; human trafficking and online child sexual exploitation and abuse – the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children uncovered 88 million images of exploited children last year; the effects of climate change; significant global and Hemispheric migration to our border; and much more. 

Our capabilities, our programs, and partnerships have evolved and expanded as well to meet this modern threat environment. Our grant funding has increased to help your cities build and strengthen your terrorism prevention capabilities; prevent, respond to, and recover from natural disasters; and keep faith-based institutions in your cities safe. Our Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative, Cybersecurity Performance Goals, cybersecurity grant program, and advisors present in each state have helped your cities and both your public and private institutions build cybersecurity prevention, detection, and response protocols. Our Office of Intelligence and Analysis is sharing more intelligence and information with your police and sheriffs departments, emergency responders, and fusion centers to equip you with the data you need to be prepared for the threats we are seeing. Our use of new technologies, including artificial intelligence, is enabling our task forces to detect more contraband, identify and rescue more victims, and locate and apprehend more criminals.  

These are just some examples of the many resources we have that are available to you, that we provide to, and share with you. 

In any and every form, our continued collaboration is fundamental to the security of our homeland and to our shared mission of safety, security, stability, and prosperity for all. To borrow the wisdom of the great basketball coach Phil Jackson, the strength of our nation comes from each individual community – and the strength of each community is drawn from the nation. Cities – your cities – are the engines of the homeland security enterprise, and we have ample strength, across every one of the most pressing homeland security challenges, that I urge of you to draw upon. 

I am grateful to Mayor Schieve and the U.S. Conference of Mayors for convening all of us today and for helping to facilitate the critical, continued partnership between the nation’s cities and its federal government. Thank you for your commitment to this work, and thank you for the honor of speaking with you today. 


Last Updated: 01/18/2024
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