Alejandro Mayorkas, President-elect's nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), faced probing questions from Senators on Tuesday as he prepares to assume a key role in the incoming administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic, unauthorized migration, domestic terrorism and cyberattacks.
Created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, DHS, the third largest federal department, oversees issues ranging from counter-terrorism and border security to immigration policy and disaster management. If confirmed, Mayorkas, the son of Cuban immigrants, would take the helm of a highly politicized 240,000-person department that has seen a succession of temporary leaders during the Trump administration — six in four years, two who were Senate-confirmed, four acting.
"There's no question we need strong and we need stable leadership in the Department of Homeland Security more than ever," Democratic Senator Gary Peters, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said during the hearing on Mayorkas' nomination. "Over the last four years, the department has endured some chaos, mismanagement and instability."
Gil Kerlikowske, who led U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) when Mayorkas was deputy DHS secretary during the Obama administration, described him as a straightforward "known quantity" at the agency.
"He can be very direct when necessary, particularly during those fraught days," Kerlikowske told CBS News, reflecting on the 2014 surge of unaccompanied minors and families from Central America seeking to enter the U.S. at the Mexican border.
Mayorkas would also inherit challenges inside the U.S., particularly the rise of domestic terrorism and anti-government militia groups, on display during the deadly Capitol riot earlier this month.
Days after pro-Trump militias descended on the Capitol, four former homeland security secretaries — two Republicans and two Democrats — penned a letter published in the Washington Post urging the Senate to "promptly consider and confirm" Mayorkas.
"The president-elect could not have found a more qualified person to be the next homeland security secretary," wrote Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson. "Mayorkas needs no on-the-job training and will be prepared to lead DHS on Day 1."
And while the former federal prosecutor appears likely to be approved by a simple majority as the Biden administration applies pressure on lawmakers to greenlight its national security team, it is unclear how long the process will take. Democrats will soon assume control of the Senate, but with a razor-thin majority.
During Tuesday's hearing, Mayorkas faced questions from some Republican senators who expressed concerns over a 2015 DHS inspector general's report that found Mayorkas pushed for the approval of applications for a program for wealthy immigrant investors on the behalf of well-connected Democrats when he served as director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Mayorkas defended his involvement in the investor visa program, calling the law his "north star." But he conceded in an exchange with Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney that the 2015 DHS inspector general's report taught him "to better guard" against the perception of impropriety to ensure "trust and confidence in the decision making of government leaders."
Mayorkas will likely play a key role in Mr. Biden's plans to reverse many of Mr. Trump's immigration changes, which collectively restricted avenues for people to immigrate to and stay in the U.S.
Mr. Biden, for example, has pledged to safeguard the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, a program for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children that Mayorkas implemented in 2012. Mayorkas, the son of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany and then communist Cuba, will also be charged with helping to fulfill Mr. Biden's pledge to dramatically increase refugee admissions, which Mr. Trump slashed to historic lows.
But the task at the U.S.-Mexico border would be formidable: reversing Mr. Trump's restrictive asylum policies without triggering a sharp increase in unauthorized migration, which could provide political ammunition for Republicans and derail Mr. Biden's immigration reform bill.
Mr. Biden and his immigration advisers have said they want to avert a border crisis and that their plans to reverse Mr. Trump's asylum policies will take time amid the pandemic.
Confronted with a string of questions about thousands of migrants heading north to the U.S.-Mexico border, Mayorkas said his officers would screen asylum-seekers to determine whether they qualify for U.S. refuge.
"We are a nation of immigrants. And we are also a nation of laws," he told Romney.
Mayorkas commended CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for playing a "critical role" in the U.S. immigration system, saying he does not support defunding the agencies.
The secretary-designate promised to seek legal remedies to halt border wall construction if confirmed, but would not commit to removing barriers built by the Trump administration. Mayorkas also pledged to end the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policy that has forced tens of thousands of migrants to wait for their U.S. court hearings on the other side of the border.
Citing Mayorkas' statement on border barrier construction, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley announced after the hearing that he would oppose fast-tracking the confirmation process.
Biden transition officials pledged last month to immediately start reviewing asylum cases of the most vulnerable migrants at the southern border. Advocates still intend to keep up the pressure to ensure that Mr. Trump's obstacles to humanitarian protections are dismantled.
"It would be unrealistic to expect that all of the problems that came from the Trump administration and before to be undone in a single day," said Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher for Human Rights First, "but the incoming administration has the legal obligation to follow U.S. law and treaty obligations that the U.S. has taken on to protect refugees."
But a challenge enveloping all of DHS will be re-establishing trust in the sprawling agency.
David Lapan, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who served as DHS press secretary during the Trump administration, remarked to CBS News that, "The Department of Homeland Security, the only federal agency whose primary mission is to protect the homeland — became under President Trump, the Department of immigration enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security has not upheld its mission. And I think across the government, we've seen damage to institutions, both in terms of trust and credibility."
And Kerlikowske, the ex-CBP head, said, "The public trust issue is pretty tough right now in law enforcement generally. But when you look at (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or CBP, I think it's even more critical right now."
During the Senate hearing, Mayorkas stressed the need to expand intelligence gathering and information sharing with local law enforcement.
"The divide between local law enforcement and the threat of domestic extremism is one of the greatest challenges that the Department of Homeland Security confronts," Mayorkas remarked.
Reflecting on the Capitol siege, Mayorkas vowed to take swift action.
"I will do everything I can to ensure that the tragic loss of life, the assault on law enforcement, the desecration of the building that stands as one of the three pillars of our democracy, and the terror felt by you, your colleagues, staff, and everyone present, will not happen again," he said.
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