Biden pick to run Homeland Security, an immigrant, reveals a lot about his immigration agenda

Suzanne Gamboa

Alejandro Mayorkas, the first Latino chosen for President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet, will head a Department of Homeland Security that is expected to drastically overhaul President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, as well as put Mayorkas at the forefront of the new administration’s anti-terrorism strategy.

Mayorkas will be the first Latino and first immigrant to head the Department of Homeland Security, if confirmed by the Senate. The highest-ranking Cuban American in the Obama administration, Mayorkas was deputy secretary of DHS under then-Secretary Jeh Johnson, and before that was the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, a part of DHS that oversees granting citizenship and other immigration benefits.

Mayorkas, if confirmed, will take over the nation’s third-largest agency in terms of employees, one that was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that oversees several smaller agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service.

The Trump administration has drastically transformed the nation's immigration system with over 400 executive actions — including refusing entry to asylum-seekers, taking children from parents at the border and restricting travel to the U.S. by Muslims.

There will be pressure on the Biden administration to act quickly on immigration and uphold pledges he made on the campaign trail, such as ending travel bans and protecting young immigrants, known as Dreamers, and to take such actions in the first 100 days of his administration.

Much of Trump’s immigration policy was the work of his adviser Stephen Miller, who cited and promoted white nationalist beliefs in emails leaked to the Southern Poverty Law Center last year.

Trump’s first two Homeland Security secretaries were John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen. Kelly became Trump’s chief of staff and Nielsen took his place. They both resigned after tumultuous tenures, including, under Nielsen, the controversial policy of family separations.

This summer, the General Accounting Office found that Chad Wolf, acting secretary of DHS, was not legally qualified to hold his job.

Mayorkas: U.S. gave him 'a place of refuge"

Mayorkas, who turns 61 Tuesday, was born in Havana, but his family fled when he was an infant. His father was born in Cuba with Sephardic roots, and his mother is a Romanian Jew who fled the Holocaust, according to a report by The Jerusalem Post. He has said that his family’s background has long shaped his identity.

“When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge,” Mayorkas said in a tweet on Monday. “Now I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who is also Cuban American, called Mayorkas a “smart and natural pick” to lead DHS.

“He has the subject matter experience to take on the enormous job of cleaning up after the disastrous and inhuman immigration policies that have torn lives and families apart under the Trump administration,” Menendez said in a statement.

Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida GOP and of the American Conservative Union, said in a tweet: “This is it. The change we needed, hallelujah.”

Biden’s selection of Mayorkas was supported by several immigrant advocacy groups despite record deportations under the Obama administration. Mayorkas became DHS deputy secretary in 2013, after Obama had revised his deportation policy and authorized DACA. Deportations are handled by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Mayorkas directed Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2009 to 2013.

Mayorkas was instrumental in shaping DACA, the Obama-era program that allows young immigrants without legal status to remain legally in the country and work and study without fear of deportation. Trump has tried to end the program but has been stopped by the courts.

Some 800,000 young adults are in the program, for which many more are believed qualified.

“Alejandro Mayorkas is someone we worked closely with to implement DACA,” said Greisa Martínez Rosas, executive director of United We Dream, a network that advocates for young immigrants.

Martinez Rosas said that she and other immigrant advocates are looking for a DHS secretary who will roll back the abuses that DHS and Customs and Border Protection have had "on undocumented immigrants in the last four years and for decades now."

Latino groups have been pressing Biden to name Hispanics to several Cabinet positions to reflect the size of the U.S. Latino population. Latinos voted for Biden by a little more than 2-to-1 in the Nov. 3 election.

Some Latino groups had endorsed Mayorkas and included his name on a list of potential Hispanic Cabinet picks given to the Biden transition team. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra also had been proposed.

According to a DHS fact sheet on Mayorkas, he played a significant role in developing the national cybersecurity strategies and protections and led negotiation of cybersecurity agreements with Israel and China.

He led Obama’s delegation to Cuba when the U.S. restored relations, which were reversed by Trump. He told The Jerusalem Post that he had been honored for his work at DHS in tackling anti-Semitism.

At DHS, he also created an office of customer service and public engagement and elevated the visibility of the fraud section and national security.

While Mayorkas was director of Citizenshp and Immigration Services, immigration benefits application fees went up — but not the citizenship application fees — because “requesting and obtaining U.S. citizenship deserves special consideration,” he said at the time.

Mayorkas went through the Senate confirmation process when he was nominated for DHS deputy secretary and also to head Citizenship and Immigration Services. He was confirmed as the DHS’ No. 2 official on a 54-41 vote with no Republicans voting for him, including two fellow Cuban Americans, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.

At the time he had been under investigation for a visa program that he managed. He was not found to have committed any wrongdoing, but was criticized for the appearance of exerting undue influence to grant certain visas.

Mayorkas also was chastised for calling the Bill Clinton White House to ask for a commutation for convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali. Mayorkas and other southern California politicians made their pleas on behalf of Vignali's father. Mayorkas admitted the call was a mistake and he should have done better research on Carlos Vignali, Politico reported in 2008.

Mayorkas started his government career as an assistant U.S. attorney in California, later becoming the youngest U.S. attorney in the country.

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