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Senate confirms Mayorkas as secretary of homeland security over GOP objections

Senate confirms Alejandro Mayorkas, Pete Buttigieg
Senate confirms Biden Cabinet nominees Alejandro Mayorkas and Pete Buttigieg 00:49

Washington — The Senate on Tuesday approved the nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas to become secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), confirming the former federal prosecutor and Obama-era immigration official to lead the department by a vote of 56 to 43.

The final tally reflected opposition from some Republican senators to the new administration's immigration policies, as well as concerns about an internal 2015 DHS investigation into Mayorkas' actions as head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) under the Obama administration. 

Six Republican senators — Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, Dan Sullivan, Shelley Moore Capito, Lisa Murkowski and Rob Portman — joined Democrats in voting to approve the nomination. Portman is the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has oversight authority over the department.

As secretary of the sprawling department, Mayorkas will be tasked with tackling some of the nation's most pressing issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, domestic terrorism, cyberattacks and migration to the U.S. southern border. DHS is responsible for a diverse range of federal functions, ranging from immigration and border policy to transportation security and natural disaster management.

A Cuban immigrant who arrived in the U.S. 1960s as a political refugee with his family, Mayorkas is the first immigrant and first Latino to lead the 240,000-person department, which was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He served as the head of USCIS from 2009 to 2013 before becoming the second-highest ranking official at the department as deputy secretary until 2016.

Alejandro Mayorkas testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on January 19, 2021. JOSHUA ROBERTS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Mayorkas' nomination stalled last week, after Republican senators contended he had not been adequately vetted on immigration policy and raised questions about a 2015 report by the DHS inspector general. The report found Mayorkas had pushed for the approval of applications in a visa program for wealthy immigrant investors on the behalf of well-connected Democrats when he served as USCIS director.

At his confirmation hearing, Mayorkas denied any wrongdoing and defended his actions, but conceded that the report taught him "to better guard" against the perception of impropriety to ensure "trust and confidence in the decision making of government leaders."

Mayorkas was the first of Mr. Biden's Cabinet nominees to face a GOP filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer overcame the last procedural hurdle to his approval last Wednesday, clearing the way for a final vote before the full Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sharply criticized the selection of Mayorkas to lead DHS in a speech on the Senate floor ahead of the vote, calling him an "ethically compromised partisan lawyer."

"It's frankly remarkable that someone with this record is even up for a Cabinet appointment," McConnell said.

Delays in the confirmation vote last month spurred a press conference featuring two former DHS secretaries, who urged Congress to swiftly take action on Mayorkas' nomination.

"It really mystifies me what benefit is being served by this continued delay in his confirmation," said Janet Napolitano, former President Barack Obama's first DHS secretary.

Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, who served under President George W. Bush, criticized senators for hindering the confirmation to voice their policy disagreements. "First of all, whether you agree or disagree with elements of President Biden's proposal should not be a basis to reject his nominee, particularly because the nominee has a much broader agenda than just immigration," he said. 

Last week, the White House delayed executive actions on immigration — including a new task force dedicated to reuniting migrant families affected by the Trump-era "zero tolerance" border crackdown — as Mayorkas' confirmation stalled. Mr. Biden is set to sign those orders later on Tuesday.

The first Senate-confirmed DHS secretary since April 2019, Mayorkas inherits a department that has been plagued by politicization for four years and used to advance former President Donald Trump's restrictive immigration agenda.

As the leader of the DHS, Mayorkas will be tasked with fulfilling Mr. Biden's pledges to undo many Trump-era immigration policies, while also ensuring the U.S. can adequately respond to a potential sharp increase in crossings along the southern border.

Mayorkas will also be expected to tackle the rise of domestic terrorism and anti-government militia groups, which has assumed new urgency following the deadly Capitol riot on January 6.

"The president-elect could not have found a more qualified person to be the next homeland security secretary," four former homeland security secretaries — Chertoff, Napolitano, Tom Ridge and Jeh Johnson —  wrote in a Washington Post op-ed days after the attack.

The department's new head also faces pressure to confront December's unprecedented Solar Winds breach after hackers inserted malicious code into software from the company SolarWinds that was used by government agencies and Fortune 500 companies. Questions remain about the full scope of the data breach following the months-long global cyberespionage campaign, as investigators uncover new details of the suspected Russian operation.

Mr. Biden is expected to appoint Rob Silvers, a former Obama administration official, to lead the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a division of DHS, though his role is yet to be made official. DHS' cyber arm has been steered by career officials serving in acting roles since Mr. Trump fired Chris Krebs, after the top cybersecurity official called the election "the most secure in American history."

Mayorkas' start date at the U.S. government's third largest department comes later into the new administration as compared to his predecessors. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama had secretaries confirmed at DHS on their first days in the Oval Office.

Since Mr. Biden took office, TSA Administrator David Pekoske has led DHS in an acting capacity. Under Pekoske's leadership, DHS issued a rare terrorism advisory last week, warning the public of a "heightened threat environment" across the U.S. in the wake of the Capitol attack. 

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