President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been described as a man of few words, direct, and compassionate.
Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American and former Obama administration official, would be the first Latino, if confirmed by the Senate, to lead DHS, an agency created after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. It is the third-largest federal agency in the nation.
“He’s a man of a few words but he is a man of his words, which is really key and important,” said Gaby Pacheco, director of advocacy, communications, and development for TheDream.US, a nonprofit organization that helps undocumented youths with financial support through college scholarships.
Pacheco is a former beneficiary of DACA, the Obama-era program that allows immigrants, who were brought to the U.S. as children without legal status, to remain legally and work and study without fear of deportation. Pacheco met Mayorkas through her DACA advocacy work when he was a top aide with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
“The first time we met with him, he came over to the offices of the National Immigration Forum. … And then after that we would go to USCIS offices and meet with [officials] as we were implementing DACA ... figuring out what we thought DACA should be like,” she said.
In the Obama administration, Mayorkas was the highest-ranking Cuban American, becoming DHS’s deputy secretary under former Secretary Jeh Johnson. Before that, he served as director of USCIS, where he oversaw the country’s naturalization and immigration system.
Mayorkas was instrumental in shaping DACA and Pacheco said he was one of the few who recognized immigrant advocacy work. He supervised the implementation, logistical and legal issues to implement the program about two months after its announcement.
“He’s very astute in the way he speaks but he gives credit where credit's due and I think that sometimes politicians forget the people behind all this,” she added.
Cuba to US
Mayorkas is the son of Jewish-Cuban refugees who fled with him from Fidel Castro’s communist rule in 1960. He lived in Miami as a child, but the family eventually left for California, where he later began a government career as an assistant U.S. attorney.
In a tweet Monday, he said, “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.”
Al Cardenas, a Cuban American and former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said in a tweet, “This is it. The change needed, hallelujah.”
The Trump administration has issued more than 400 executive actions that have dramatically reshaped the country’s immigration system. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to reverse many of those policies, including rescinding travel restrictions on 13 countries and put in place a 100-day freeze on deportations, while his administration issues new guidance.
“But I am not naïve,” Pacheco said, adding, “We will have to hold him accountable and push him to do the right thing but it's not going to be as hard as has been in the past.”
According to a 2015 DHS inspector general’s report, Mayorkas was involved in cases involving “politically” powerful people participating in the country’s visa investor program. He was accused of using his position to expedite the visa application process.
A Biden transition spokesperson has told the Reuters news agency the inspector general did not find any legal wrongdoing and decided Mayorkas’ actions were “legitimately within his purview.”
Some said Mayorkas’ nomination is a sign of Biden’s intent to bring someone with the right immigration experience to lead DHS.
“He comes with the deep respect of the business community, national security and foreign policy experts, immigration reformers, and elected officials and career civil servants from across the ideological spectrum,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, in a statement to the press.
FWD.us is a bipartisan organization founded by members of the business and technology communities. It seeks reform of the immigration and criminal justice systems.