Senate confirms Alejandro Mayorkas as first Latino Homeland Security secretary

Mayorkas will be the first Senate-confirmed leader of DHS since April 2019

Alejandro Mayorkas testifies during his confirmation hearing last month before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Alejandro Mayorkas testifies during his confirmation hearing last month before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 2, 2021 at 3:46pm

The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Alejandro Mayorkas as Homeland Security secretary, making him the first Latino and immigrant to oversee the third-largest government department.

The Cuban-born former federal prosecutor was confirmed on a 56-43 vote, with six Republicans joining 50 Democrats in voting for him.

Mayorkas will inherit a department that was fraught with constant leadership turnover under the Trump administration. He will be the first Senate-confirmed secretary at the department since April 2019, when Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to resign from her post. The position has since been held by a series of acting secretaries.

Mayorkas also will take over the department as the nation continues to recover from the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, as well as other domestic terror and cybersecurity threats. In addition to including three federal immigration agencies — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — Homeland Security also oversees the Transportation Security Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and other agencies.

Vice President Kamala Harris swore in Mayorkas in a ceremony with his wife and daughters inside the Eisenhower Executive Office Building several hours after his confirmation.

Harris and Mayorkas also joined Biden next door at the White House when the president signed several immigration-related executive orders. One of the orders tasks Mayorkas to begin work on reviewing several Trump-era immigration policies. Among them is the so-called Remain in Mexico policy that has forced more than 60,000 asylum seekers to wait out their U.S. court cases in Mexico.

Mayorkas also will head a task force to identify and reunite families separated at the southwest border under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy in 2018 that led to the separation of more than 3,000 children from their parents and massive public outcry before it was terminated.

Senate Democrats applauded Mayorkas’ nomination, praising his qualifications. Under the Obama administration, Mayorkas served as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2009 to 2013 before being elevated in 2013 to the role of deputy Homeland Security secretary. He played a key role in the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that has provided protections for immigrants brought as children to the United States unlawfully by their parents.

Sen. Gary Peters, the expected incoming chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Mayorkas couldn’t come on board soon enough.

“Mr. Mayorkas is a proven leader and has the experience to protect the American people from harm” from persistent and emerging threats, the Michigan Democrat said.

“Right now the threats we face are severe. From domestic terrorism, including the rise of white supremist violence, to cyberattacks from foreign adversaries, to tackling a deadly pandemic, DHS continues to face daunting challenges, challenges that have only been made more difficult to address due to the years of chaos of the previous administration," he continued.

Several Senate Republicans voted against the confirmation, raising questions about actions that Mayorkas took in previous government positions. During his confirmation hearing last month, some Republicans cited a 2015 DHS Inspector General report that concluded Mayorkas “exerted improper influence in the normal processing and adjudication” of a visa program geared toward wealthy foreign investors.

“The problem isn’t experience, not exactly,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday on the Senate floor.

“Mr. Mayorkas is all too familiar with the levers of power that control immigration law. The problem is when he is chosen to pull those levers and for whose benefit. As a high-ranking official in the Obama administration, Mr. Mayorkas did his best to turn U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services into an unethical favor factory for Democratic Party royalty,” McConnell said.

Last month, after the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced Mayorkas’ nomination, a group of Senate Republicans attempted to delay the full Senate vote by requesting that Mayorkas also appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The incoming Judiciary chairman, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, called a second hearing for Mayorkas “unnecessary” and said further delaying Mayorkas’ confirmation vote puts security at risk.

Mayorkas has also been backed by several former Homeland Security secretaries who urged a quick confirmation given the current threats facing the country.

“We also have obviously the rise of domestic terrorism and extremism, as exemplified by the terrible events of January 6. These problems are not going away, and Homeland Security’s on the front line protecting Americans on these issues, as well as such non-intentional problems as climate change-induced hurricanes, fires,” former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, said during a conference call with reporters last week.