President-elect Joe Biden on Monday chose Alejandro Mayorkas as his eventual nominee to be the next Secretary of Homeland Security, a choice that if confirmed by the Senate next year will return the Havana-born immigrant to a department that he held senior leadership positions in for more than seven years, the first four as head of the agency that oversees citizenship and immigration benefits and the last three as the DHS deputy.
Mayorkas’ selection was hardly a surprise as he was considered one of the leading contenders, if not the top contender, for the top job at DHS.
If ultimately nominated and confirmed, Mayorkas will be the first Latino and immigrant to lead DHS.
Mayorkas was the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services when administration of then President Obama in 2012 directed the implementation of a controversial immigration policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA, which gave certain illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children temporary relief from removal from the country. Mayorkas helped develop and implement DACA.
As the DHS deputy, Mayorkas served under then Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who created the “Unity of Effort” initiative within the department that continues to this day. Unity of Effort was management directive to breakdown stovepipes and create more of joint operating environment between the various DHS components.
As part of Unity of Effort, DHS proposed that the National Protection and Programs Directorate be rebranded and reorganized as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection Agency. That effort ultimately culminated in congressional legislation establishing the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which is becoming better known as CISA. President Trump signed the CISA bill into law.
CISA works with the federal civilian government, state and local governments, and the private sector on strengthening the nation’s cyber security posture, in large part through the sharing of information about threats and best practices. In September 2016, Mayorkas called cyber security a “communal” responsibility between the public and private sectors (Defense Daily, Sept. 27, 2016).
The reception Mayorkas receives in the Senate will likely be divided, with at least coolness on the part of some, if not most, Republicans. When he was confirmed by the Senate as the DHS deputy in December 2013, the 54 to 41 tally in favor had all Democrats and two independents vote yes on the nomination while all Republicans opposed it.
Leadership of the Senate in the next Congress is up in the air pending a runoff election between two incumbents representing Georgia and their Democratic opponents.
The reason for Republican opposition seven years ago was because Mayorkas was the subject of an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General at DHS during his leadership of USCIS for abusing a foreign investor visa program that allows immigrant investors in the U.S. to obtain lawful residency in the county. The IG’s investigation into Mayorkas was well underway at that point and was public knowledge.
The DHS IG in March 2015, said it investigated allegations the “Mayorkas exerted improper influence in the normal processing and adjudication of EB-5 immigration program benefits. In three matters pending before USCIS, Mr. Mayorkas, now Deputy Secretary of DHS, communicated with stakeholders on substantive issues outside of the normal adjudicatory process, and intervened with the career USCIS staff in ways that benefitted the stakeholders. Mr. Mayorkas’ conduct led many USCIS employees to reasonably believe that specific individuals or groups were being given special access or consideration in the EB-5 program.”
Immediately following the IG’s conclusions, Mayorkas said that he disagreed with the report said he “will certainly learn from it and from this process.” He said the EB-5 “program was badly broken when I arrived at USCIS,” suffered from “erroneous decision-making and insufficient security vetting of cases. I could not and did not turn my back on my responsibility to address those grave problems. I made improving the program a priority and I did so in a hands-on manner, through cases, policies, and sweeping personnel and organizational changes.”
Johnson in the last year of the Obama administration also directed Customs and Border Protection to move forward with a long-delayed effort to deploy biometrics technologies to help record the exit of foreign nationals leaving the U.S. CBP ultimately decided that face comparison technology was the right tool to implement biometric exit, which was mandated by Congress 20 years ago, and has been incrementally rolling the technology out throughout the Trump administration.
Johnson was also a proponent of spending more on border security technology than on continuing to build more physical barriers between the nation’s ports of entry on the southern border.
As the department’s deputy during the second half of the Obama administration, Mayorkas was responsible for managing the day to day operations of DHS and seeing that policies were implemented.
Mayorkas also chaired a management group that oversaw the DHS Acquisition Review Board and reviewed recommendations from the department’s Joint Requirements Council.
A statement from Biden’s transition team announcing the selection of Mayorkas said that in addition to leading the implementation of DACA at DHS, Mayorkas “negotiated cybersecurity and homeland security agreements with foreign governments, led the department’s response to Ebola and Zika, helped build and administer the Blue Campaign to combat human trafficking, and developed an emergency relieve program for orphaned youth following the tragic January 2010 earthquake in Haiti.”
In addition to his prior confirmations by the Senate to lead USCIS and be the DHS deputy, he was nominated in 1998 by then President Clinton and confirmed by the Senate to the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California.
Most recently, Mayorkas served as a partner in the international law firm WilmerHale as a corporate counsel and litigator. He also leads the firm’s COVID-19 Coronavirus Task Force.
Democratic homeland security leaders in Congress praised the selection of Mayorkas to lead DHS.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Mayorkas’ experiences at DHS will make him “ready on Day One,” and he specifically called out his experience in immigration and cyber security.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, lauded Mayorkas’ experience in the private and public sector and said that “I look forward to working with him as part of the confirmation process and finding commonsense solutions to the serious threats facing our nation.”