President-elect Joe Biden chose Alejandro Mayorkas on Monday to become the first immigrant and Latino to lead the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration policy and border security among its vast portfolio.
The department has been one of the most contentious arenas in the federal government as President Donald Trump sought to tighten border security, reduce refugee admissions, increase deportations and build a larger wall along the border with Mexico.
Mayorkas, a Cuban American who arrived with his parents as refugees from Fidel Castro’s in 1960, has already been deputy secretary of the department and headed its citizenship agency. Changing Trump policies could take years, according to immigration experts.
“We have no time to lose when it comes to our national security and foreign policy,” Biden said in a statement. “I need a team ready on Day One to help me reclaim America’s seat at the head of the table, rally the world to meet the biggest challenges we face, and advance our security, prosperity, and values.”
The choice was one of several announced Monday that would create one of the most diverse foreign-policy staffs in history.
Biden also plans to nominate Avril Haines, the former deputy director of the CIA, to serve as Director of National Intelligence. If confirmed, Haines would be the first woman to lead the intelligence community.
And while the president-elect’s pick for US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is not the first Black woman in that coveted position, her nomination would help Biden fulfill his promise to assemble a diverse cabinet.
“My mother taught me to lead with the power of kindness and compassion to make the world a better place,” Thomas-greenfield said monday in a tweet. “I’ve carried that lesson with me throughout my career in Foreign Service – and, if confirmed, will do the same as Ambassador to the United Nations.”
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the team Biden announced Monday is “grounded in substance” and will bring a high level of competence and skill to the incoming administration.
The diversity of the advisers, he said, is particularly important now, “given how tribalized, how polarized, how dysfunctional American politics is,” Miller said. Linking foreign policy and national security to America’s diversity will help convey that these are not just ” elite “arenas, he said.
“This notion that, in fact, there is something that we can still describe in our highly polarized environment as the national interest, and they’re going to work to further it, that’s really important,” Miller said.
Miller, who has worked for a half-dozen former secretaries of state from both parties, said it will also be important for Biden to name a Republican to a high-level position “and not just as a token.”
Marielena Hincapé, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said she was “thrilled” with the choice of Mayorkas, who she said would listen to voices of immigrant communities and be responsive to their concerns.
“This represents an exemplary choice that will not only serve our next president, and the American people well, but also sends a strong signal to immigrant communities that the Biden administration fully intends to follow through on their commitment to undo the harms of the Trump administration , ”Hincapé said. “Mayorkas has a deep understanding of the complex immigration laws and policies impacting the country. He is compassionate, fair, and deeply committed to restoring due process to our system. “
Mayorkas tweeted Monday about the challenge he faces.
“When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge,” he said. “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.”
Biden had earlier said he sought a diverse cabinet that “looks like America.” He also chose Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser and John Kerry as special primary envoy for climate. Biden was scheduled to introduce his foreign-policy team Tuesday afternoon in Wilmington.
“I am incredibly pleased to see President-elect Biden send a clear message of hope and support for American values to the world in choosing candidates who possess the qualifications, the demeanor, and the temperament to serve in leadership positions and represent the American people at home and abroad, “said Sen. Bob Menendez, DN.J., whose parents immigrated from Cuba.” This diverse group of individuals will continue their lifelong dedication to public service. “
Immigration did not come up much on the campaign trail, so it’s not clear how much Biden will change Trump’s policies.
But Biden told NPR in August that while he wouldn’t tear down any of the border wall Trump build, “there will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration.”
During an Oct. 23 debate, Biden said Trump was the first president in history to force refugees seeking asylum in the US to wait in other countries. Biden said he would end the process of forcing applicants to make their case for asylum under American law rather than “sitting in squalor on the other side of the river.”
Mayorkas has served as deputy secretary of Homeland Security during President Barack Obama’s second term. The post placed him as second-in-command of the department with a $ 60 billion budget and a workforce of 240,000 individuals throughout the world.
Mayorkas previously served as the director of the department’s Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency charged with operating the largest immigration system in the world. The agency had 18,000 workers and a $ 3 billion budget.
He developed programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that allowed the children of undocumented immigrants. President Donald Trump sought to overturn the program.
Mayorkas was previously confirmed by the Senate as US attorney for the central district of California, where he led a team of 240 assistant US attorneys. He tried numerous criminal and civil cases, including Operation Polarcap, which was then the largest money laundering case in the nation, and the federal tax evasion and money laundering case against famed Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss.
He was from the University of California at Berkeley and received his law degree from Loyola Law School.