Biden picks Cuban-American lawyer for Homeland Security

The first Latino to head the department has campaigned on immigrants' rights for years

FILE PHOTO: United States Vice President Joe Biden (C) delivers remarks while attending a roundtable on countering violent extremism at the White House in Washington February 17, 2015. Senior Director of the National Security Council Amy Pope (L) and Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas listen.      REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo
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Joe Biden, the US president-elect, will nominate Alejandro Mayorkas to become secretary of homeland security, Mr Biden's transition team said on Monday, entrusting the Cuban-American to help reverse outgoing President Donald Trump's tough immigration policies.

Mr Mayorkas, a former federal prosecutor in California, served as deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under Barack Obama when Mr Biden was vice president. He became one of Mr Biden's first Cabinet selections as the Democratic former vice president prepares to take office on January 20.

If confirmed by the US Senate, Mr Mayorkas would become the first Latino and first foreign-born leader of the sprawling department created after the 9/11 attacks. The department, with about 240,000 employees, is responsible for border security, immigration enforcement, cybersecurity, disaster readiness and relief, and encompasses the US Coast Guard and Secret Service.

Mr Mayorkas, who turns 61 on Tuesday, was born in Havana and came to the US when he was a year old with his family, fleeing the Communist-ruled island nation.

He moved first to Florida and then California. He is currently a partner at the law firm WilmerHale.

"When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge," Mr Mayorkas said following the announcement. "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."

Mr Biden has pledged to undo many of Mr Trump's restrictive immigration policies. The hundreds of planned changes could take months or years to enact. Some pro-immigrant activists favoured Mr Mayorkas for the Homeland Security role.

On the first day of his presidency, Mr Biden intends to rescind Mr Trump's travel bans on people from 13 countries – most of them either majority-Muslim or African nations. He also plans to send immigration legislation to Congress that would include a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the US illegally.

Mr Biden also plans to revitalise the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme put in place in 2012 by Mr Obama that offered protections to the so-called Dreamers – hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the US illegally after entering as children. Mr Trump sought to rescind the programme but was blocked by the Supreme Court in June.

'Humanitarian core'

Former colleagues praised Mr Mayorkas as a talented manager with knowledge of the department and experience in law enforcement and immigration.

"He is an enforcement guy, but has a very deep and rich humanitarian core," said Seth Stodder, a department official during the Obama administration who worked on border, immigration and trade policy.

Mr Mayorkas joined the Obama administration in 2009 as the director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency.

In that role, he oversaw the establishment of the Dreamers programme, which was up and running 60 days after being announced. The programme protected eligible immigrants from deportation and provided them with work permits. Mr Mayorkas navigated logistical and legal obstacles to meet an ambitious implementation deadline, according to Stephen Legomsky, the USCIS chief counsel at the time.

"We were tied up in knots for 60 days and Ali somehow got it together," Mr Legomsky said.

A 2015 Department of Homeland Security inspector general's report found Mr Mayorkas intervened in cases related to certain "politically powerful" people involved in an investor visa programme, giving the perception he had provided preferential treatment.

The cases involved prominent Democrats including Anthony Rodham, the brother of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and former Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

A transition spokesman for Mr Biden said that the inspector general did not find any legal wrongdoing with Mr Mayorkas's actions and determined the decisions were "legitimately within his purview".