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Biden taps Alejandro Mayorkas as first immigrant to lead Homeland Security

Biden announces top Cabinet picks
Biden announces top foreign policy and national security picks 01:50

President-elect Joe Biden said Monday he is nominating Alejandro Mayorkas, a former Obama administration official, to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a key role at the helm of anticipated efforts to undo President Trump's flurry of immigration changes. 

Mayorkas, a Cuban immigrant who arrived in the U.S. as a political refugee, would be the first immigrant secretary and first Latino to lead the department, a bureaucratic juggernaut with more than 240,000 employees responsible for border and transportation security, immigration enforcement, cybersecurity, natural disaster response and other law enforcement functions.

"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 said on Twitter.

Born in Havana, Mayorkas left Cuba with his family in the 1960s after Fidel Castro's leftist revolutionaries ousted U.S.-backed strongman Fulgencio Batista to establish a communist regime. His mother, a Romanian Jew, had fled to Cuba in the 1940s to escape the Nazi occupation of Europe.

In 2009, Mayorkas joined the Obama administration as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency that adjudicates applications for immigration benefits like green cards, work permits and naturalization ceremonies. President Barack Obama nominated Mayorkas to be deputy DHS secretary in 2013, a role for which he was subsequently confirmed by the Senate, becoming the highest-ranking Cuban American in government.

Vice President Joe Biden Attends Naturalization Ceremony
Then-Vice President Joe Biden attends as Alejandro Mayorkas administers the oath of allegiance to new American citizens during a naturalization ceremony on November 14, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. Chris McKay/WireImage

Mayorkas worked at the international law firm WilmerHale after his stint in the Obama administration.

An adviser to Mr. Biden's transition praised Mayorkas' selection, telling CBS News he has "deep experience, knows the department well, is well regarded by the immigrant advocacy community and by law enforcement."

Michigan Senator Gary Peters, the top Democrat in the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, commended Mr. Biden for picking a nominee with prior experience in DHS leadership.

"Our nation faces persistent threats, both longstanding and new, including foreign and domestic terrorism, natural disasters, cyber-attacks, and now a pandemic," Peters said in a statement. "The Department of Homeland Security plays a critical role in addressing these threats and strengthening our national security, and it needs highly qualified, experienced and dedicated leaders, like Mr. Mayorkas — especially following years of chaos and mismanagement." 

Several current DHS leaders — including the two highest-ranking department officials, Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli — are in acting posts or remain "senior officials performing the duties" of Senate-confirmed positions.

Mr. Biden's transition office highlighted the fact that Mayorkas has been by confirmed by Senate for three different posts, including for his 1998 nomination as a U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles. Mayorkas, however, could face a narrow confirmation vote next year, especially if Republicans succeed in defending Georgia's Senate seats in January. 

Republican lawmakers could invoke a 2015 DHS inspector general report that said Mayorkas had improperly intervened in visa adjudications on behalf of several companies — a conclusion he strongly denied. 

John Sandweg, a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the Obama presidency, called Mayorkas a "great choice" for DHS secretary. "He has strong law enforcement credentials, he will hit the ground running and he prioritizes good policy above good politics," Sandweg added.   

Mayorkas' selection signals that the incoming Biden administration will prioritize immigration policy, which DHS typically enacts and implements, along with the Justice Department. During his tenure in the Obama administration, Mayorkas worked on the implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has shielded hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors from deportation.

In four years, Mr. Trump reshaped the U.S. immigration system, issuing more than 400 policy changes to restrict asylum, curtail humanitarian protections for immigrants living in the country, make it tougher to obtain green cards, broaden who could be deported and slash refugee admissions.

Mr. Biden has vowed to overturn or alter many of these changes, and Mayorkas would likely oversee these efforts.

Texas Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro, the chair the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a frequent critic of Mr. Trump's immigration policies, said he is looking forward to working with Mayorkas "to treat immigrants with dignity and respect."

"After the cruelty and devastation wrought by the Trump administration, Mayorkas has a mandate to overhaul DHS," Castro said.

Andres Triay contributed reporting.

Biden plans sweeping reversal of Trump immigration agenda 06:08

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