Alejandro Mayorkas could face his past in latest Senate hearing

DHS nominee got no GOP support at previous Obama era confirmation

DHS Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas has received Senate confirmation to government posts on three previous occasions. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images file photo)
DHS Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas has received Senate confirmation to government posts on three previous occasions. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images file photo)
Posted January 15, 2021 at 5:44pm

Alejandro Mayorkas will find himself in familiar territory Tuesday when he goes before a Senate panel as President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

Previously confirmed three times by the Senate for government posts, including deputy Homeland Security secretary under the Obama administration, Mayorkas will likely be met with questions about controversies from his previous federal service. Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee also are likely to ask about his plans to reverse hard-line immigration policies of the Trump administration.

In the aftermath of the deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol, Mayorkas appears likely to be confirmed as Biden puts pressure on lawmakers to approve him and other members of his national security team as soon as possible to ensure a smooth transition of power. It’s unclear, however, how quickly that may happen with the Senate yet to shift from Republicans to Democrats.

According to his prepared remarks, obtained by CQ Roll Call, Mayorkas was expected to tell lawmakers he would focus his efforts on preventing another deadly attack like the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“If I should have the honor of being confirmed, I will do everything I can to ensure that the tragic loss of life, the assault on law enforcement, the desecration of the building that stands as one of the three pillars of our democracy, and the terror felt by you, your colleagues, staff and everyone present, will not happen again,” he said in his written testimony.

In addition to Mayorkas, Biden’s pick for Defense secretary, Lloyd Austin; Secretary of State, Antony Blinken; and Avril Haines, the nominee for director of national intelligence, also have Senate hearings Tuesday.

Mayorkas, a former federal prosecutor, has been tapped to take over the third-largest government department, one that oversees three immigration agencies: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; Customs and Border Protection; and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It also oversees the Transportation Security Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

His previous role as a leading administrator at DHS could help when he’s asked at the Senate Homeland Security hearing about restoring normalcy and morale to a department that has been engulfed in turmoil and leadership changes throughout the last four years, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, immigration and cross-border policy director at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

[Acting Homeland Security Chief Chad Wolf resigns]

But Brown cautioned Mayorkas against trying to quickly undo highly criticized Trump policies just to make good on immigration promises made by Biden on the campaign trail and in recent weeks.

“We have examples of how chaotic and horrible things can go when policies are quickly changed, with no planning for what happens next,” she said.

One example she noted was the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which led to more than 3,000 children being separated from their parents at the southern border.

The Justice Department inspector general issued a scathing report Thursday that said the Trump administration failed to adequately prepare for and manage the policy, which required the prosecution of any adult caught crossing the border illegally.

[Watchdog: Jeff Sessions, Justice aides led ‘zero tolerance’ policy]

The incoming Biden administration has said it would create a special task force to focus on reuniting those families.

The last time Mayorkas faced a Senate confirmation hearing, in 2013 to become deputy Homeland Security secretary, he didn’t get a single Republican vote because of an active investigation into how he handled the EB-5 investor program, which grants U.S. visas to wealthy foreign investors.

He ended up being confirmed, but in 2015, the DHS inspector general concluded that Mayorkas “exerted improper influence in the normal processing and adjudication of the visas.”

Even if he wins committee approval, he may face opposition on the Senate floor from lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Cotton. The Arkansas Republican told a Fox News program in November that because a federal watchdog found Mayorkas “guilty of selling green cards to Chinese nationals on behalf of rich, democratic donors,” he should be disqualified from leading DHS.

But Michigan Democrat Gary Peters, the incoming Senate Homeland Security chairman, has voiced support for Mayorkas as a “highly qualified, experienced and dedicated” nominee.

Advocacy groups have praised Mayorkas for his role in rolling out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which has shielded from deportation nearly 700,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

Kerri Talbot, the director of federal advocacy at Immigration Hub, said advocates will be eager to hear if Mayorkas provides a timeline for dismantling programs such as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which has forced more than 68,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are being processed in the U.S.

“The immigration groups have a good relationship with him, and we will be able to work constructively on removing a lot of the inhumane policies that the Trump administration put into place,” Talbot said.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.