Mayorkas is driven by his own understanding of the immigrant experience. Many in GOP want him gone
WASHINGTON (AP) — To his supporters, Alejandro Mayorkas is a thoughtful, driven secretary — a “Boy Scout” — who brings a prosecutor’s tenacity and his personal understanding of the immigrant experience in America to running his sprawling agency. To his detractors, he personifies everything that has gone wrong at the U.S.-Mexico border and is responsible for allowing hundreds of thousands of migrants into the United States illegally in a burgeoning crisis.
Mayorkas, often referred to as Ali, is the first Latino and the first immigrant to lead the Department of Homeland Security, one of the government’s biggest agencies with 260,000 employees. And if House Republicans get their way, he’ll also be the first Cabinet member impeached in nearly 150 years.
Running the department was never going to be an easy job.
The agency was forged in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to bring together 22 various agencies and departments. Tom Warrick, a former top counterterrorism official at the agency who is now at the Atlantic Council, says it’s the second-toughest job in Washington.
“Only the president’s is tougher. The secretary of DHS has to oversee the most diverse mission portfolio in the federal government. And almost all of it is a high-wire act where failure would have enormous consequences,” Warrick said.
In just a few examples of the agency’s diverse responsibilities, over the past year Homeland Security worked with historically Black colleges and universities to respond to bomb threats, set up an AI-task force to figure out how best to use the nascent technology and protected President Joe Biden on his trip to Ukraine.
But it is the department’s role in immigration that has made Mayorkas a target of impeachment. The House could vote on impeachment as soon as this coming week, although it’s unclear whether Republicans have enough support within their slim majority to push it through.
When Biden chose Mayorkas to head the department, the nominee was seen by many as someone who would bring a more humane hand to immigration following the administration of Republican President Donald Trump, whose policies to stem the flow of migrants fueled outrage.
Mayorkas seemingly goes out of his way to avoid making news in public appearances. He is exceedingly precise and polite in how he expresses himself, often speaking with pride and earnestness about the department’s mission, its employees and public service. He remembers the exact date when he was first sworn into government service, in 1989 as a prosecutor in California.
“I am deeply devoted to the reasons why I entered public service many, many years ago…unwaveringly so,” he said during a recent interview with The Associated Press.
His family left Cuba in 1960 when he was a baby and eventually settled in Los Angeles. His mother had fled the Holocaust before arriving in Cuba. When Mayorkas was a child, his mother didn’t want him going to sleepovers or away to camp after she had lost so many family members to the Holocaust, the secretary has said.
Hanging on the wall behind the desk in his office are two black-and-white photos of his parents. Mayorkas said his immigrant and refugee background mean that he brings an intense patriotism to the job.
“This country meant a lot to my parents and to what they could provide to my sister and me,” he said. “I also understand the fragility of life, what it means to be displaced.”
Supporters say he is driven by commitment to public service and that the idea of him doing anything that warrants impeachment is completely at odds with what they know of the law-and-order-minded former prosecutor.
Cecilia Munoz worked closely with Mayorkas during the Obama administration when she was at the White House and she calls him a “Boy Scout.” She says he has an ability to persevere through government bureaucracy to get stuff done.
As head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, Mayorkas put in place a program giving protection from deportation to migrants brought to the border as children. Munoz said he got the program up and running two months after President Barack Obama announced it — “light speed for a federal agency.”
She also praised his work on another issue: how to get Haitian children, orphaned by the 2010 earthquake, into the U.S. and to people who wanted to adopt them. In his office is a photo of one of those children running through the Miami airport to meet his new parents.
“For him, the most meaningful thing you can do in government is stick with the thorny problem so that a kid can … find his family,” she said.
Since taking the job as DHS secretary, Mayorkas has been subject to often hostile rhetoric over the administration’s handling of the border and immigration.
Republicans argue that he has been the architect of an immigration system that they say has no consequences for migrants who come to the U.S. illegally and that serves as a major factor in pulling them to America. GOP lawmakers say the campaign language that Biden used to hammer Trump’s policies sent a message to would-be migrants that U.S. borders were now open, and they say the Democratic administration either got rid of policies that were working under Trump to curb migration or put in place new ones that are failing.
Republicans particularly criticize Mayorkas for what they say is a failure to detain migrants and for his use of humanitarian parole to admit hundreds of thousands of people into the country who otherwise could not get a visa.
“He’s intentionally just bringing the people in and releasing them into the country,” said GOP Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee that voted along party lines Wednesday in favor of impeaching Mayorkas. “The mass migration wave that’s occurred is because there’s no consequences to crossing the border now.”
Only once in American history has a Cabinet secretary been impeached: William Belknap, war secretary in the administration of President Ulysses Grant, in 1876 over kickbacks in government contracts.
Targeting an official for impeachment over a policy dispute — in Mayorkas’ case, over the Republicans’ claim that he is not upholding immigration laws — is unprecedented.
Brandon Judd is the president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents agents and endorsed Trump for president. Judd argues that when Mayorkas says things such as Homeland Security is putting migrants into deportation proceedings, it leads people to believe the government is moving faster and being tougher than Judd says it is.
Judd also criticized Mayorkas’ role in a 2021 incident where Border Patrol agents were accused of abusing Haitian migrants, saying Mayorkas was not supportive enough of the agents.
Judd said agents complain to him that they are not able to do the job they signed up for because they constantly are being pulled off to process migrants. “You don’t feel good in the job that you’re doing as a Border Patrol agent right now,” he said.
Mayorkas says he does not take the criticism personally. He shows little desire to delve into the politics of the impeachment except to say the allegations are “baseless.”
He is adamant that the impeachment process is not distracting him from his work and is prepared to defend himself in the Democratic-controlled Senate if there is a trial.
As much as the Biden administration’s immigration agenda is pilloried by Republicans, advocates for immigrants say the government’s approach has become too aggressive and is a far cry from the promises Biden made as a candidate and his actions early in his term to reverse the effects of the Trump years. And they are worried that Senate border negotiations will undermine America’s place as a refuge.
Ahilan Arulanantham, co-director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law, said he has a lot of concerns about the administration’s direction on immigration. But he praises Mayorkas for being transparent and willing to meet with advocates even when the secretary knows he will get pushback.
Mayorkas sat down with Arulanantham nearly a year ago for what at times was a contentious interview. Arulanantham pressed him on issues such as the treatment of children in the immigration court system and policies on asylum. But, Arulanantham said, he did not doubt that Mayorkas would speak to him again if he asked.
Mayorkas and many immigration experts argue that what is happening on the southern border is part of a global phenomenon where people around the world, aided by social media and smugglers, are more likely to move in search of a better life. Homeland Security says it is aggressively deporting migrants who are found not to have the right to stay in America.
Angela Kelley, who was a senior counselor to Mayorkas and is now a senior adviser with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said Mayorkas has done much that has gone unnoticed: reuniting families separated under Trump, creating protections for undocumented immigrants who might be exploited by employers and speeding up the naturalization process for new citizens. And while Republicans say he has abused his humanitarian parole authority, she and others say the department is using it to address immigration problems at a time when Congress gives it few tools to work with.
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