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US Welcomes Refugees While Eyeing Security

Man who oversees world's largest immigration agency is an immigrant himself

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US Immigration Director Alejandro Mayorkas' is himself an immigrant.
US Immigration Director Alejandro Mayorkas' is himself an immigrant.

Nearly 700,000 immigrants from more than 200 countries became American citizens over the past year, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The man who oversees USCIS, the world's largest immigration agency which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is Alejandro Mayorkas.

A compact man whose confident bearing reflects his former career as an attorney and federal prosecutor, Mayorkas took the helm of the18,000-employee immigration services in August 2009.

Dual role

Mayorkas believes the agency's role in American life is two-fold: to welcome and embrace newcomers while also bolstering America's national security.

"They are two parts of a whole. We accept a very significant percentage of the world's refugees. We are indeed a beacon of hope and opportunity for the world, for those who need refuge, for those seeking a better life for themselves and their loved ones," he says. "At the same time, we are not welcoming and embracing to those who seek to do us harm."

Other than Native Americans, all living American citizens or their ancestors came here from elsewhere. Even though the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, Mayorkas thinks its borders must be strictly controlled. Congress limits both the type and number of visas offered to those seeking to cross those borders.

"There are particular visa programs that bring in temporary workers, people of particular skill, agricultural workers and workers from different walks of life that fit into the visa programs that Congress has established," he says. "And there are requirements, and there are also sensitivities to each of those programs to balance our desire to bring talent while at the same time protecting our American workforce."

Sometimes immigration benefits are extended to respond to a specific humanitarian crisis, such as Haiti's devastating January, 2010 earthquake.

"This administration moved very swiftly to announce temporary protective status for Haitian nationals here in the United States  recognizing that they could not return to Haiti, irrespective of their documented status here, that humanitarian relief dictates that we let you stay until conditions stabilize and you can return safely."

Offering shelter

U.S. immigration policy also seeks to shelter the politically oppressed.

"The asylum and the refugee programs, which are really at the forefront internationally, define our country as a place of refuge for people who suffer persecution by virtue of their membership in a particular group," says Mayorkas. "There are, for example, the Iraqi nationals who provided assistance to the United States during the times of conflict that may qualify for one of the programs by virtue of their assistance to the United States."

Mayorkas' own family received this shelter when they emigrated from Cuba in 1960.

"My father was born in Cuba but my mother was born in Eastern Europe and actually fled to Cuba during the second World War," he says. "My parents brought me and my sister here to the United Sates following the Cuban revolution. My parents did not want to raise their children and grow their family in a communist country."

Pursuing the American dream

While America offers great opportunities for immigrants, Mayorkas points out that it is up to the immigrants themselves to make the most of those opportunities through initiative, hard work and education. His own parents stressed the value of learning.

"My parents instilled in us very early on the power of education as a vehicle for growth and discovery of one's opportunities and the realization of one's dreams."

Just as Mayorkas is proud of his own mixed heritage, he honors the profound cultural and ethnic diversity America's immigrants bring to our shores. There are more than 180 mother languages spoken at home by New York City's million-plus school children.

"That's the beauty of America," he says.

But he also recognizes that in order to thrive, immigrants must become a part of the American mainstream. To obtain citizenship, all applicants must demonstrate a basic knowledge of English and be familiar with the broad outlines of American history and how our democracy works.

At the same time, Mayorkas believes the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has a responsibility to streamline its visa process, reach out to immigrant communities, and support their efforts to make America their permanent home.

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