President-elect Joe Biden has picked Alejandro Mayorkas, a former top Obama administration official, to run the Department of Homeland Security, which would make him the first Latino and immigrant to serve in the role.
Mayorkas, who was born in Havana, Cuba, and became a US citizen in 1973, served as the director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and deputy secretary of DHS during the Obama administration. The 60-year-old led USCIS in 2012 when the agency rolled out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which sought to protect undocumented immigrants brought to the country at a young age from deportation. Biden has promised to restore those protections.
“We have no time to lose when it comes to our national security and foreign policy,” Biden said in a statement that announced the selection of Mayorkas and others in top roles. “I need a team ready on Day One to help me reclaim America’s seat at the head of the table, rally the world to meet the biggest challenges we face, and advance our security, prosperity, and values. This is the crux of that team.”
Mayorkas’s selection comes at the tail end of a tumultuous stretch for the DHS.
President Donald Trump has redefined the role of the Department of Homeland Security while instituting a series of unprecedented immigration restrictions. Trump banned citizens of Muslim-majority countries from coming to the US, blocked asylum protections at the border, kept asylum-seekers in Mexico, and cut back DACA.
The torrent of policy changes, which the Migration Policy Institute estimated to number more than 400, had its effect on DHS employees who were told to implement the measures quickly, often without preparation or adequate training. Many DHS employees believed the agency had begun acting like an arm of the Trump campaign, as senior officials mimicked political talking points and took on public battles with cities like Portland.
DHS has not had a Senate-confirmed leader since the departure of Kirstjen Nielsen in April 2019, and federal courts have found that the current leadership was not legally appointed.
“This is one of the toughest jobs in government,” said one Biden transition team source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “[Mayorkas] is someone who is an experienced leader and has what it takes to rebuild DHS and restore credibility to the department after years of chaos and dysfunction. He has a proven track record.”
The source added that Mayorkas will create an immigration system that “reflects our values.”
Mayorkas’s family fled Cuba in 1960 after the ascent of Fidel Castro, according to a 2015 profile of him in the Los Angeles Times.
“He did not want to raise the family in a communist country,” Mayorkas, who primarily grew up in LA, told the paper of his late father. “He believed in democracy, and he understood the perils and the challenges of living otherwise.”
Mayorkas would eventually travel back to Cuba in 2016 to negotiate a memorandum of understanding between the two countries.
Biden’s pick to lead DHS was celebrated by some advocates and progressive politicians.
“Alejandro Mayorkas is a historic and experienced choice to lead an agency in desperate need of reform. As an immigrant and a creator of the DACA program, he’s well suited to undo Trump’s damage and build a more compassionate and common sense immigration agenda,” tweeted Julián Castro.
Former DHS officials who served in the Obama administration were also excited by the selection.
“He’ll bring a very steady national security hand and a finely tuned humanitarian compass to a department whose mission has been distorted and whose skilled and dedicated career employees have been inexcusably misused during the Trump administration,” said one former DHS official.
Since he left government, Mayorkas has been a partner at the law firm WilmerHale.
“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 on Monday after the announcement of his selection to head DHS.