The US Senate on Tuesday confirmed Alejandro Mayorkas to head the Homeland Security department with a bipartisan vote of 56-43, giving the agency its first permanent leadership in several years.
Mr Mayorkas, a naturalised US citizen born in Cuba, is an Obama administration department alumnus. He developed and shepherded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme, which protects people brought to the US illegally as children, often called Dreamers, from being deported and allows them to work legally.
“I worked in support of all the men and women throughout the Department of Homeland Security and in public service who work in and even rush into harm’s way to protect us all,” Mr Mayorkas said during his confirmation hearing. “I have not, for a single moment, lost sight of what a privilege and honour it is to do so, nor of the obligations it carries on our nation’s behalf.”
“Mr Mayorkas is a proven leader and has the experience to protect the American people from harm,” Gary Peters, a senator from Michigan, said on the Senate floor prior to the confirmation vote. Mr Peters is the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
President Joe Biden’s pick now faces overhauling or ending many of former president Donald Trump’s policies and will work with Congress to advance the immigration bill Mr Biden sent to the Hill on his first day in office.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed Mr Mayorkas’s confirmation, saying he does not deserve a role in government after he turned US Citizenship and Immigration Services into an “unethical favour factory”.
A 2015 Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report faulted Mr Mayorkas’s heavy-handed approach while serving as the head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, concerning visas granted to politically connected people including former Senate majority leader Harry Reid and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s brother, Anthony Rodham.
Republicans also delayed Mr Mayorkas’s confirmation over concerns about Mr Biden’s immigration policy.
“Mr Mayorkas has not adequately explained how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border given [President Biden’s] promise to roll back major enforcement and security measures,” Josh Hawley, a senator from Missouri, said before Mr Biden’s inauguration.
Mr Biden has already issued a flurry of executive orders on immigration, including reversing a policy that restricted travel from several predominantly Muslim countries and dismantling another that required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico or another country while their application was processed. He also issued a 100-day moratorium on deportations of undocumented immigrants that a Texas court quickly blocked after a lawsuit from the state.
“The policies that President Biden is addressing in his executive order should be addressed here in Congress with bipartisan legislation,” John Cornyn said in a speech on the Senate floor. “It would be better for the country if our Democratic colleagues tried to legislate instead of litigating these executive orders in court.”
The US Citizenship Act, Mr Biden's immigration proposal, would forge a pathway to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented people living in the US.
The proposal would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for temporary legal status, with immediate green card eligibility for certain workers. Green card holders could apply for citizenship after three years.
Mr Biden and Mr Mayorkas are focused on the importance of creating a legal path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have committed no crime other than living in the US illegally and who are contributing to the country's economy.
“I would be privileged to work with Congress to pass immigration reform legislation that provides that path and provides a permanent solution to what is clearly a broken system,” Mr Mayorkas said during his confirmation hearing.
Mr Mayorkas will also hold sway over some immigration proposals set in motion by the previous administration, including rules that had not taken effect by the end of Mr Trump’s term. The agency lacked a Senate-confirmed leader for the bulk of Mr Trump’s last two years in office, and court cases have argued that rules the agency put in place in that time are not lawful because the interim agency heads were not serving legitimately.
The new secretary will also take the helm of an agency that legislators want to take a more proactive role in responding to domestic terrorism threats.
Mr Biden cited “political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism” as looming threats to the country in his inaugural speech.
The department, in a national terrorism advisory bulletin last week, warned of a heightened threat environment from ideologically motivated violent extremists, including those opposed to the presidential transition.
Mr Mayorkas will also oversee the department's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency as it responds to last year's major breach of the federal government's online infrastructure tied to software from SolarWinds. Mr Biden's initial Covid stimulus package proposed beefing up the agency's funding after the attack.