Who is Alejandro Mayorkas? Joe Biden's pick for Homeland Security Secretary is first Cuban immigrant in top post

The noted Cuban-American lawyer is set to bag the plum post in January and bring order to a department that has seen chaos over the last four years under Donald Trump


                            Who is Alejandro Mayorkas? Joe Biden's pick for Homeland Security Secretary is first Cuban immigrant in top post
DHS secretary-designate Alejandro Mayorkas and President-elect Joe Biden (Getty Images)

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is set to get an experienced leadership in January after President-elect Joe Biden said on Monday, November 23, that he is nominating Alejandro N Mayorkas as its next secretary. The DHS, which is the third-largest federal department, saw as many as five secretaries in the years of incumbent President Donald Trump with three of them serving as "acting".

In the Trump presidency, Kirstjen Nielsen served the longest tenure as the secretary of the DHS and it was less than a year-and-half. The 61-year-old Mayorkas is a former official of the Barack Obama administration who served as the deputy secretary of the DHS between 2013 and 2016. Prior to that, he was the director of the US Immigration and Citizenship Services between 2009 and 2013.

The agency adjudicates applications for immigration benefits like work permits, green cards, etc. Between 1998 and 2001, the Democrat was the attorney for the Central District of California. In 2008, The National Law Journal picked Mayorkas as one of the "50 Most Influential Minority Lawyers in America". Last year, Latino Leaders Magazine placed him on the list of the 101 most influential leaders in America's Latino community.

Former President Barack Obama speaks as former US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas and former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano look on during a naturalization ceremony for active duty service members in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

 

Mayorkas was born in Havana, Cuba, and if confirmed, he will become the first Latino and immigrant to hold the top position of the all-important department that has found itself getting involved in politics in the tumultuous years of Trump. The rise of Mayorkas, who once arrived in the US as a political refugee, to become the DHS secretary will mark a sort of poetic justice since the same department faced a backlash in the presidency of Trump over the handling of refugees and immigrants at the southern border. 

First Cuban immigrant to bag top DHS post

Mayorkas, a Cuban immigrant who arrived in the US as a political refugee with his family in the 1960s to escape the leftist regime of Fidel Castro, 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.

Mayorkas’s mother had fled to Cuba in the 1940s to escape the Nazis. Mayorkas brought in his own past while reacting to the news of getting nominated for the plum post. He said: “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 has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California. He also received his Juris Doctor from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles in 1985. He lives with his family in DC. Mayorkas’s pick was praised by an aide to Biden’s hampered transition process. The aide told CBS News that Mayorkas has “deep experience, knows the department well, is well regarded by the immigrant advocacy community and by law enforcement”.

Gary Peters, a senator from Michigan who is also a top Democrat in the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, commended the president-elect for choosing somebody having prior experience in the DHS as its next head, the report added. 

“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.” 

John Sandweg, a former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), also called Mayorkas a “great choice” to become the DHS secretary. “He has strong law enforcement credentials, he will hit the ground running and he prioritizes good policy above good politics,” he was quoted as saying by CBS News. 

Issues that could still haunt Mayorkas

Mayorkas will be facing his confirmation test in the Senate next year and if the Republicans succeed in maintaining their majority in the chamber by winning the two seats in Georgia that will go to runoff polls on January 5, then the Democrat could see a narrow voting. The GOP members of the Senate could invoke a 2015 report by former DHS inspector general John Roth that said Mayorkas had improperly meddled in visa adjudications on behalf of many forms, a charge he strongly denied. 

Role in drug dealer's sentence commutation

Also, Mayorkas was once questioned over his role in former President Bill Clinton’s commutation of the sentence of Carlos Vignali Jr, a convicted narcotics trafficker, after returning a call from the White House. At a Senate hearing in 2013, he testified that during his tenure as the attorney in Los Angeles in 2001, he was contacted by the then Clinton administration seeking to know his position on commuting Vignali Jr’s prison sentence of nearly 15 years.

He said that he did not support the commutation. However, Vignali Jr’s sentence was indeed commuted in January 2001 and then, Mayorkas came up with a different version. In an email to his US attorney’s office, he wrote that he called the White House counsel’s office at the request of Vignali’s businessman father.

“I understand that my telephone call conveyed support for the commutation. In hindsight, it was a mistake for me to place that call,” he conceded. While Mayorkas refused to talk on the matter in public thereafter, a written communication from a DHS spokesperson said that since 2001, he has “readily and without qualification admitted it was a mistake to engage in this matter.”

If you have a news scoop or an interesting story for us, please reach out at (323) 421-7514