President-Elect Joe Biden has nominated Alejandro N. Mayorkas to be the head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). If confirmed by the Senate, Mayorkas would be the first Latino and first immigrant to hold the position. Biden has promised to prioritize immigration reform within and beyond his first hundred days as president. His plans, which can be read about in further detail here, will require close coordination with DHS. Mayorkas will, as CNN Politics puts it, likely “play a key role in rolling back Trump administration immigration policies, given that many of those changes came out of DHS.” To fully consider this nomination, four questions must be answered: what is DHS? Why Mayorkas? What will he face as head of DHS? What does such a nomination signal?
1. What is DHS?
With its more than 240,000 employees, DHS is the third-largest federal department. It was created after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and is now responsible for border and transportation security, immigration enforcement, cybersecurity, natural disaster response and other law enforcement functions.
Under the Trump administration, DHS has had five secretaries, though only two were confirmed by the Senate. The New York Times describes the agency as “sprawling and troubled” since it has not only “contended with vacancies and interim leaders” but has also been criticized for its enforcement of Mr. Trump's “political whims,” such as the separation of children from their families at the border and the building of a wall funded by the Defense Department. Most recently, its Acting Secretary Chad Wolf issued a memorandum suspending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides protection from deportation to hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the country as children. As recounted in this post, a federal judge has since ruled that Wolf was unlawfully appointed and, by consequence, his suspension of DACA is invalid. According to CNN Politics, there is now a renewed push to get the Wolf nomination to the Senate floor prior to Inauguration Day in January 2021.
2. Why nominate Mayorkas?
Mayorkas can be seen as a fitting candidate for the head of DHS for two main reasons: his immigrant story and his past experience. Born in Havana, Cuba, he and his family fled the Castro Revolution in the 1960s. Following the announcement of his nomination, Mayorkas referenced his background in a tweet: “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.”
In addition to his immigrant story, Mayorkas has extensive experience working in government. He is, in fact, a high-ranking veteran of DHS. In 2013, he was nominated by Obama to be deputy secretary of DHS. As deputy secretary, he played an instrumental part in implementing the DACA program from its infancy. Mayorkas also led the agency's response to the Ebola and Zika outbreaks—experience which will be useful given the current coronavirus pandemic. As secretary of Homeland Security, Mayorkas will oversee the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which offers support to state governments as they combat COVID-19. Prior to his role as DHS deputy secretary, Mayorkas served as Obama's director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which administers applications for immigration benefits. Given these former roles, he was seen as the candidate who could stabilize DHS after its tumultuous years under Trump. The New York Times reports that Biden advisers said the nomination would also “satisfy moderate Democrats, Republicans and the many officers in the department, which oversees the agencies that carry out deportations and patrol the border, while not alienating liberal Democrats.”
3. What will Mayorkas face as head of DHS?
When announcing his nomination, Biden said that Mayorkas “will play a critical role in fixing our broken immigration system and understands that living up to our values and protecting our nation's security aren't mutually exclusive—and under his leadership, they'll go hand-in-hand.” As mentioned above, the DHS Secretary also handles issues relating to the coronavirus pandemic as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Additionally, he will have to handle responses to terrorism, maritime, aviation and cybersecurity threats.
Although Mayorkas has been confirmed by the Senate for three different posts (DHS deputy secretary in 2013, USCIS director in 2009, and U.S. Attorney in 1998), CBS News warns that he “could face a narrow confirmation vote next year, especially if Republicans succeed in defending Georgia's Senate seats in January.” Republicans may also focus on a 2015 DHS inspector general report in which Mayorkas was accused of using his position as deputy secretary to expedite the visa application process. The inspector general did not find any wrongdoing, however, and it was determined that Mayorkas was “legitimately within his purview."
4. What does this nomination signal?
Trump instituted over 400 changes to immigration policy and his actions have produced an immigration system that favors restriction over access. Biden's nomination of Mayorkas signals that such an approach is over; the incoming administration will prioritize immigration policy which aims to be not only efficient but also fair and compassionate.
Response following the announcement of the future head of DHS has been positive from immigrant advocates, Democratic lawmakers, and former and current officials alike. It cannot be contested that Mayorkas is qualified for the job and its many responsibilities, including those outside of immigration.