Washington — If confirmed by the Senate, Xavier Becerra, the son of working-class Mexican immigrants, will take charge of the nationwide response to a public health crisis that has killed 50,000 Latinos so far. And Alejandro Mayorkas, the son of Cuban refugees, will be tackling the rebuilding of a refugee program decimated by President Trump.
In tapping Becerra and Mayorkas to lead the departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, respectively, President-elect Joe Biden is tasking two Latinos with containing COVID-19 and dismantling Mr. Trump's hard-line immigration policies — major issues that have harmed many Latino and immigrant households.
Nathalie Rayes, president of the Latino Victory Project, a liberal group pushing to elect more Hispanics to public office, said choosing Becerra and Mayorkas "signifies that the Biden administration will work diligently early on to reverse the destructive course set in motion by the Trump administration."
Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democrat of Texas and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, added, "To be the best policymaker, you really have to have your pulse on what ordinary people are going through in this country — especially at a time like this. Xavier and Alejandro are two people who understand that."
Last week, in a meeting with top Biden transition officials, Castro and other caucus members pushed for a Latino to lead the health department — not only make history, but also to signal to the nation's largest minority group that the new president understands the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on Latinos nationwide.
Caucus members had in mind New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. She's a former state health director, a former member of Congress and currently the nation's only Latina governor. For attorney general, they backed Becerra, another former member of Congress, or Tom Perez, the outgoing Democratic National Committee chairman.
Either way, two participants in the meeting recalled that the lawmakers told Biden transition aides they wanted to see a Latino in at least one of the "Big Four" cabinet positions atop at least one of the departments of State, Treasury, Defense or Justice.
But Ron Klain, who will be Mr. Biden's White House chief of staff, argued that there's really a "Big Six" — State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, plus Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, participants said.
By that measure, the Hispanic Caucus and other Latino groups are succeeding, given Mayorkas and Becerra's selection.
But several national Latino organizations are pushing for at least five Latinos in the Biden Cabinet, which would be a record high at the start of a new administration. As Mr. Biden continues to mull a potential agriculture secretary, Latino leaders are pushing for Arturo Rodríguez, the former president of the United Farm Workers.
The Hispanic Caucus is now focusing especially on ensuring that a Hispanic woman has a place on Mr. Biden's cabinet, preferably in a role other than labor secretary or head of the Small Business Administration, the only cabinet-level positions ever held by Latinas.
"It would be very disappointing to have a cabinet without a Latina," Castro said.
Representative Filemon Vela, Democrat of Texas and one of Mr. Biden's earliest congressional supporters in 2020, is pleased with Mr. Biden's picks so far. With roughly 40 million Americans in the U.S., "I think it was important for us to remind people how important it was to have an American of Mexican descent in a top Cabinet leadership position," he said. "I think as things turned out, given Becerra's background, they knew exactly who one of the right people to lead the agency was going to be."
"The right person at the right time"
If they're confirmed, Mayorkas would lead a sprawling department tasked with myriad responsibilities, including airport and border security and immigration policy, while Becerra, a former congressman, would oversee a roughly $1-trillion department with about 80,000 employees responsible for all aspects of public health — including oversight of the Affordable Care Act.
León Rodríguez, a former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is glad to see two Latinos with notable government experience in charge with the seismic shifts in policy that will be getting underway in January.
"Part of it is the symbolism, but part of it is also the reality of putting competent, conscientious people in charge of these agencies that are critical to the well-being of Americans and returning to professionalism in governance," he said.
Mayorkas and his family left Cuba in 1960 after Fidel Castro's communist revolutionaries toppled the U.S.-aligned authoritarian government of Fulgencio Batista. Nearly two decades earlier, his mother, a Romanian Jew, had fled as the Nazis occupied France.
After Mr. Biden announced his nomination, Mayorkas pledged to protect "all Americans," as well as those "who flee persecution in search of a better life," a profound departure from the Trump administration's view on refugees and asylum-seekers. Mr. Biden has vowed to set a 125,000 refugee cap during his first year in office, a more than eightfold increase from the historic low of 15,000 allowed by Mr. Trump, who has portrayed refugees as economic and security risks.
Mayorkas is a former U.S. attorney who has jumped in and out of federal service since the late 1990s. He re-entered the federal government in 2009 after President Obama chose him to be his first director of USCIS.
As head of the immigration services agency, he was one of the architects of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative designed to shield young undocumented immigrants known as "dreamers" from deportation. In 2013, Mayorkas was promoted to deputy DHS secretary and oversaw the department's efforts to contain the Zika and Ebola outbreaks.
Rodríguez, who succeeded Mayorkas as USCIS director, appreciates the symbolism of Mayorkas' nomination, given that he would oversee USCIS, the Transportation Security Agency, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Coast Guard that all deal with immigrants and visitors.
"Having somebody who has that immigrant experience and who has that cross-cultural perspective, especially after what we've experienced in the last four years, I think he's absolutely the right person at the right time," he said.
Becerra is a former state assemblyman who went on to serve 12 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Biden aides noted Monday that as a lawmaker, Becerra had a special understanding of what the Affordable Care Act could do to help uninsured Americans. In the years since the law's implementation, he's seen the rate of uninsured residents of his former Los Angeles congressional district cut in half.
He left Capitol Hill in 2017 as the highest-ranking Latino in the House after being chosen to succeed Kamala Harris as California's attorney general. Becerra quickly became one of the leading legal opponents of the Trump administration, filing lawsuits against its attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, to cut federal funding for so-called "sanctuary" jurisdictions and to roll back DACA.
If confirmed, Becerra would also oversee the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency charged with caring for migrant children apprehended by border officials without their parents or legal guardians.
With two Hispanic men now in the Biden Cabinet, attention is turning toward the search for Latinas for cabinet-level roles.
Depending on how top positions are counted, there've been roughly 20 Latino cabinet secretaries or directors of cabinet-level agencies in the past 30 years — but only four women. Three of those women ran the Small Business Administration: Aida Alvarez for President Bill Clinton, Jovita Carranza for Mr. Trump and Maria Contreras-Sweet for Mr. Obama. Hilda Solis served as Mr. Obama's first labor secretary.
Many Hispanic caucus members are supporting Lily Eskelen Garcia, the former president of the National Education Association, for education secretary. A former teacher, she'd help fulfill Mr. Biden's vow to appoint a public school teacher to lead the Education Department.
Other names in the mix, according to Latino activists tracking the nominations process, include Rosa Gumataotao Rios, the former Treasurer of the United States, whose signature appears on American currency, for various economic roles; Stacie Olivares-Castain, a California public pensions official, to serve as commerce secretary; and outgoing Representatives Debbie Murcasel Powell, Democrat of Florida, and Xochitl Torres Small, Democrat of New Mexico, to fill various roles.
The Hispanic Caucus is asking constituents, current and former aides and officials back home for other potential picks. "One thing I've learned in this process is that it's important to present the transition team with lots of options for their decisions," Vela said.
Congressman Lou Correa, a Blue Dog Democrat from Orange County, California, praised Mayorkas' and Becerra's expertise and took note of the emotional resonance of their nominations for Latinos.
"To have people in the administration who look like you is a psychological booster," he said. "It's the community saying, 'Yes, we're Americans and we're finally being recognized.'"
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