Former Obama administration official Alejandro Mayorkas was tapped Monday to lead the Department of Homeland Security by President-elect Joe Biden, signaling an intent to bring experienced leadership to the third-largest federal department after years of instability.
The announcement was immediately met with praise from immigrant advocates and Democratic lawmakers, as well as former and current officials who have expressed concern over the politicization of the department from some of its top leaders.
Over the last four years, the rotating acting leadership at DHS has disrupted some of President Donald Trump’s actions, including a second attempt to curtail the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It’s also contributed to unpredictability within the department.
In responding to the news, Mayorkas alluded to the challenges facing DHS and cited his background as an immigrant.
“When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge. 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,” Mayorkas tweeted.
If confirmed, Mayorkas would be the first Latino and immigrant to serve at the helm of the department, which has been pounded and dragged into politics under Trump.
Mayorkas had been the rumored pick for weeks – a welcome selection among some current and former officials who emphasized the need for a leader with experience at DHS. And to that end, Mayorkas has plenty.
Under Obama, Mayorkas served as both the DHS deputy secretary and the director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an immigration agency within the department, where he was integral to the implementation of DACA. The program, which the Trump administration has tried to end, shields from deportation undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children.
Mayorkas will likely play a key role in rolling back Trump administration immigration policies, given that many of those changes came out of DHS. He is intimately familiar with the agency – USCIS – at the center of some of the most restrictionist policies, including those making asylum exceedingly difficult to obtain.
Since Trump took office, DHS has had five secretaries, only two of whom have been confirmed by the Senate, and has run into a flurry of questions over the legitimacy and authority of those leading in acting capacities. The last Senate-confirmed secretary was Kirstjen Nielsen. She left in April 2019.
In August, Trump nominated Chad Wolf to be Homeland Security secretary, after months of Wolf serving in the post. Wolf has still not been confirmed despite a renewed push to get the nomination to the Senate floor before Inauguration Day.
“The constant revolving door is not good for long-term stability and effectiveness of what is still a new department,” a former DHS official who worked with Mayorkas during the Obama administration told CNN. “He will be able to hit the ground running and be able to be effective really early on. I can’t think of anyone who is better suited to take on the leadership of the department at what is really a difficult time.”
Mayorkas, who was born in Havana, Cuba, and was the highest-ranking Cuban American to serve in the Obama administration, played a part in the administration’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.
“As a Cuban American, it is a great honor to further President Obama’s policy and build stronger relationships with the Cuban people,” he said after visiting Cuba as DHS deputy secretary in 2015. “I believe that engagement with Cuba is in our interest, and will improve the lives of the Cuban people.”
Mayorkas’ former boss, ex-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, was quick to laud the announcement on Monday.
“There is a way to enforce our immigration laws in a sensible, compassionate way, while pursuing immigration reform here in this country,” Johnson said during a Center for a New American Security virtual panel discussion. “Ali knows how to do that. I am confident that he will take on that mission in a very competent way.”
John Sandweg, a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement who also worked with Mayorkas, called him a “great choice.”
“He has strong law enforcement credentials, he will hit the ground running and he prioritizes good policy above good politics. The national security team announced so far by President-elect Biden, including Ali at DHS, is filled with competence, integrity and actual expertise,” he said.
Michael Knowles, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1924, which represents USCIS employees in the national capital area, said Mayorkas was “champion of the workforce” while at USCIS. “Based on our experience with him, we can expect him to manage a healthy balance between the important mission of securing the border, enforcing our laws, while ensuring a fair and efficient legal immigration process,” Knowles said.
Mayorkas will also lend expertise on controlling pandemics. He was involved in DHS’ infectious disease planning for Ebola and Zika, which included ensuring there was appropriate screening at airports during the Ebola outbreak, the former DHS official said.
“DHS has an enormous amount of interaction with travelers and that will be key in the response to the continuing pandemic,” the former official said.
Questions about visa applications in whistleblower complaint
Mayorkas was previously confirmed three times by the Senate. He could, however, face questions about his time as director of USCIS, the federal government office responsible for legal immigration.
While in that position, career employees at the agency alleged that Mayorkas was “exerting improper influence” in the processing and adjudicating of visa applications, according to a 2015 DHS Office of Inspector General report, which stemmed from a whistleblower complaint.
Employees alleged that Mayorkas exerted influence to give individuals preference as part of the visa program, which gives residency preference to immigrants who agree to invest in the US economy and create jobs.
The government watchdog found that in three instances, Mayorkas “communicated outside of the normal adjudicatory process” and intervened in the decision-making process.
Although the inspector general could not determine the motivation behind Mayorkas’ actions, they caused “significant resentment” at the agency. At the time, Mayorkas said the allegations that he provided preferential treatment and created an appearance of impropriety were “entirely unfounded.”
A transition spokesperson told CNN the watchdog report did not find any legal wrongdoing and determined that each decision they examined was “legitimately within his purview,” adding that Mayorkas’ actions also led to the creation and preservation of hundreds of American jobs.
This story has been updated with additional information.