U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will nominate Alejandro Mayorkas to become U.S. secretary of homeland security, Biden’s transition team said on Monday, entrusting the Cuban immigrant to help reverse outgoing President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies.
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Mayorkas, a former federal prosecutor in California, served as deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under President Barack Obama when Biden was vice president. He became one of Biden’s first Cabinet selections as the Democratic former vice president prepares to take office on Jan. 20.
If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Mayorkas would become the first Latino and first foreign-born leader of the sprawling department created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The DHS has 240,000 employees and is responsible for border security, immigration enforcement, cybersecurity, disaster readiness, and relief, among other portfolios.
Among its agencies are U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB), whose actions have drawn criticism from immigrant-rights advocates. It also includes the U.S. Coast Guard and Secret Service.
Mayorkas, 60, was born in Havana and came to the United States with his family when he was roughly a year old, moving first to Florida and then to California, where he grew up. He is currently a partner at the law firm Wilmer Hale.
Mayorkas traveled to Cuba in 2015 as deputy secretary for Homeland Security for talks with Cuban officials, during the Obama administration, as part of the process of normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations that took place during Obama´s last years in office.
Biden has pledged to undo many of Trump’s restrictive immigration policies. The many changes he seeks could take months or years to implement. Some pro-immigrant activists favored Mayorkas for the DHS role. On the first day of his presidency, Biden intends to rescind Trump’s travel bans targeting people from 13 countries, most of them either majority-Muslim or African nations. He also plans to send immigration legislation to Congress to include a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
Biden also plans to revitalize the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program started in 2012 by Obama that offered protections to the so-called Dreamers - hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the United States illegally after entering as children. Trump sought to rescind the program but was blocked by the Supreme Court in June.
Mayorkas joined the Obama administration in 2009 as the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency. In that role, he oversaw DACA's implementation, which was up and running 60 days after being announced. The program protected eligible immigrants from deportation and provided them with work permits. Mayorkas navigated logistical and legal obstacles to meet an ambitious implementation deadline, according to Stephen Legomsky, the USCIS chief counsel at the time.
Biden has pledged to push for legislation that would enable Dreamers, mostly young Hispanic adults born in Mexico and other Latin American countries, to obtain citizenship.