Immigration advocates celebrated the announcement that President-elect Joe Biden intends to nominate Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Mayorkas, who previously served as deputy secretary of DHS under President Barack Obama, is the son of Cuban Jews who fled Fidel Castro’s regime and arrived in the United States as refugees in 1960, less than a year after he was born. If confirmed, he would become the first immigrant and first Hispanic American to lead the sprawling department, which, among its various responsibilities, oversees the U.S. immigration system and border security.
“This nomination is not only smart, it is historic,” Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said in a statement issued Monday. “He will not only bring critical leadership but a set of life experiences that will animate the department’s work ahead.”
Johnson said that apart from Mayorkas’s personal background, he was reassured by his record on immigration issues during the Obama administration, especially his key role in creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which protects certain immigrants who were raised in the U.S. from deportation. Johnson said this was a hopeful sign that the incoming Biden administration may go even beyond Biden’s pledge to reverse the controversial immigration restrictions imposed under President Trump.
Prior to becoming deputy secretary of DHS in 2013, Mayorkas served as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, where he worked on a number of policy initiatives, including DACA, which, at its peak, provided protection from deportation for roughly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents as young children.
Trump has sought to end the program.
“The news that Mayorkas will be nominated as DHS secretary is another hopeful sign for Dreamers and a signal that the Biden administration is ready to deliver on its commitments for Dreamers and to strengthen America in the process,” said Candy Marshall, president of TheDream.US, which provides college scholarships to DACA recipients, sometimes known as “Dreamers.”
Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer for RAICES, a nonprofit that provides legal services to low-income immigrants, said in a statement, “We look forward to the immediate expansion of the DACA program and the dismantling of the detention and deportation machine that was created under Obama and expanded by Trump.
“Leading this department will be no easy task, but we hope that as the first Latino and someone who has advocated for immigrant rights, he will change the direction of DHS once and for all,” said Andiola.
The news of Mayorkas’s forthcoming nomination was also praised by organizations that provide services to refugees and asylum seekers, whose access to protections in the U.S. has been curtailed by the Trump administration. HIAS, a Jewish American nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid to refugees, issued a statement Monday congratulating Mayorkas, who sits on the organization’s board of directors. Not only is Mayorkas himself a refugee, but his mother, a Romanian Jew, fled Nazi persecution to Cuba, where she met Mayorkas’s father, a Cuban native with Sephardic roots.
Mayorkas, who grew up in Los Angeles, spent 10 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Central District of California, where he specialized in prosecuting white-collar crimes, including the high-profile tax evasion and money laundering case against “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss. In 1998, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton as the United States attorney for the Central District of California, becoming at age 38 the youngest U.S. attorney in the country.
In his first public statement following the announcement, Mayorkas already seemed to strike a markedly different tone from the rotating cast of officials who’ve been installed (lawfully and otherwise) at the helm of DHS over the last four years.
“When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge,” Mayorkas tweeted Monday afternoon. “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.”
Though Trump’s DHS has largely been focused on carrying out the administration’s agenda of restricting immigration and toughening enforcement at the southern border, the department is also responsible for cybersecurity, combating terrorism, and disaster prevention and response.
The website for WilmerHale, an international law firm where Mayorkas has most recently been employed as a litigator, says Mayorkas “currently leads WilmerHale’s COVID-19 Coronavirus Task Force,” citing his “experience leading the US Department of Homeland Security’s response to Ebola and Zika.” The task force was created to help the firm’s corporate clients deal with various labor, worker safety and employment issues stemming from the pandemic.
Democratic leaders on both the House and Senate committees that oversee DHS also expressed their support for Biden’s pick.
“Our nation faces persistent threats, both longstanding and new, including foreign and domestic terrorism, natural disasters, cyber-attacks, and now a pandemic,” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “The Department of Homeland Security plays a critical role in addressing these threats and strengthening our national security, and it needs highly qualified, experienced and dedicated leaders, like Mr. Mayorkas — especially following years of chaos and mismanagement.”
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., who serves as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, also hailed Mayorkas as “a seasoned leader and veteran of DHS” whose experience “makes him uniquely qualified to build DHS back better after years of neglect and being used as a political weapon by President Trump.”
“Mr. Mayorkas will need our support with what will certainly be a full plate: from the rise of domestic terrorism and the coronavirus pandemic to cyber threats to our infrastructure and the fallout from the Trump Administration’s failed border and immigration policies,” Thompson said in a statement. “I urge the Senate to act expeditiously on this nomination as DHS has been without permanent leadership for over a year and a half.”
Since President Trump took office in 2017, five people have served as the head of DHS, only two of whom were confirmed by the Senate. In November, a federal judge ruled that the current acting secretary, Chad Wolf, had been illegally appointed to that post.
Though a press release from the Biden transition team noted that Mayorkas has already been confirmed by the Senate for three previous positions, the Washington Post suggested that Mayorkas’s role in the development of DACA could hurt him with Republicans, who might also bring up a 2015 DHS Office of Inspector General report that found that he “exerted improper influence” in helping certain foreign investors in the EB-5 program, which offers employment visas and easier access to a green card for foreign nationals who make significant investments in U.S. businesses.
The report alleged that as USCIS director, Mayorkas acted “outside the normal adjudicatory process” to intervene in three specific EB-5 cases at the behest of high-ranking Democrats “in ways that benefited the stakeholders.” The cases involved companies with ties to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe, and Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania.
In 2013, while the inspector general’s office was conducting its investigation into the allegations, Senate Republicans boycotted Mayorkas’s confirmation hearing for deputy DHS secretary, arguing that he should not be confirmed until the probe into his conduct was completed.
According to ABC News, during those confirmation hearings, which went forward without the Republican members, who then held a minority in the Senate, Mayorkas called the allegations “unequivocally false.” Mayorkas was confirmed for the deputy director role and he disputed the OIG’s findings when they were released in the report two years later.
Then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a statement defending Mayorkas at the time, as did Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, who called him “a man of impeccable integrity” and argued that “the inspector general’s office has squandered two and a half years on an investigation and couldn’t come up with something substantive and had to say something.” Fox News reported Tuesday that a Biden transition spokesperson said the OIG’s report did not find any legal wrongdoing by Mayorkas, and that his actions helped create and preserve American jobs.
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