Less than two weeks after a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, Alejandro Mayorkas, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for homeland security secretary, assured senators that, if confirmed, he will “tackle the threat of domestic extremism” and prevent future attacks.
“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,” Mayorkas told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Mayorkas, who previously served as DHS deputy secretary under President Barack Obama, is the son of Cuban Jews who fled Fidel Castro’s regime and arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1960, less than a year after he was born. If confirmed, he would become the first immigrant and first Hispanic American to lead the sprawling department.
Along with President Trump’s second impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives, the Jan. 6 riots, which resulted in the deaths of five people, were a frequent topic at Mayorkas’s confirmation hearing. Held one day before Biden’s inauguration, the capital remains in a heightened state of security due to the threat of additional violence from right-wing groups.
Mayorkas made clear, however, that domestic extremist violence is just one item on a long list of current crises and emerging threats that DHS is tasked with addressing, including the COVID-19 pandemic, foreign terrorism and cyber threats, natural disasters and border security.
Committee members from both sides of the aisle appeared to be in agreement over the urgent need to install a qualified, stable leader at DHS, which has been run by a revolving door of Trump appointees over the last four years, only two of whom were confirmed by the Senate. Chad Wolf, who most recently led the department in an acting capacity, resigned following the attack on the Capitol, citing “recent events,” including a number of court rulings that concluded Wolf was illegally appointed to that role.
“Given the homeland security threats we face as a country … including the current increased threat level here in our nation’s capital, that all of us experienced as we came to the Capitol this morning, having the right person to lead the Department of Homeland Security could not be more important,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
But Portman and other Republicans expressed concerns about Mayorkas’s plans to enforce border security under the incoming Biden administration as well as his past conduct as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Obama administration.
Specifically, Mayorkas was forced to address a number of questions about a 2015 DHS Office of Inspector General report which alleged that, as USCIS director, he “exerted improper influence” in helping certain foreign investors in the EB-5 program, which offers employment visas and easier access to a green card for foreign nationals who make significant investments in U.S. businesses.
According to the report, Mayorkas acted “outside the normal adjudicatory process” to intervene in three specific EB-5 cases at the behest of high-ranking Democrats “in ways that benefited the stakeholders.” The cases involved companies with ties to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe and Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania.
As Portman noted in his opening statement, the inspector general’s office was investigating the allegations against Mayorkas when he was nominated for deputy homeland security secretary in 2013, prompting Senate Republicans to boycott his confirmation hearings. “As a result, Mr. Mayorkas’s nomination was reported out of this Committee on a strict party-line vote with no Republican support,” said Portman. “He was later confirmed by the Senate in the same way — party line, with no Republican support.”
Mayorkas, who disputed the allegations as “unequivocally false” during his 2013 confirmation hearings for deputy DHS secretary and again when the OIG report was released in 2015, once again defended his conduct as USCIS director at Tuesday’s hearing.
The EB-5 program, he said, “was broken,” arguing that, “for me to recuse myself from the program in its entirety would be abdicating my responsibility to address the problem.”
Mayorkas insisted that the three cases highlighted in the inspector general’s report were “three of hundreds of cases that I became involved with” at the request of members of Congress from “both sides of the aisle.”
“I take issue with the use of the term ‘intervened’,” Mayorkas said. “It is my job to become involved in problems that an agency confronts, to become involved and fix them.”
Mayorkas cited as an example that during his time at USCIS he also worked to resolve bureaucratic issues blocking international adoptions from Guatemala, thanks to a case brought to his attention by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
“The inspector general did not take issue with the disposition of the cases in which I became involved because I studied the law, and I followed the facts, and that is my North Star. And it always has been,” said Mayorkas. “Any suggestion to the contrary is incorrect.”
Mayorkas also faced questions on Biden’s plan to propose a sweeping immigration reform bill as early as Wednesday,
“We are a nation of immigrants and we are also a nation of laws. And I intend to apply the law in the execution of my responsibilities as DHS secretary,” Mayorkas said in response to a question from Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, regarding how he intends to handle the arrival of a caravan of Honduran migrants reportedly making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. The caravan in question was reportedly broken up by Guatemalan security forces on Monday.
Romney was one of several Republicans, including Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who questioned Mayorkas specifically about the latest migrant caravan and, more broadly, about whether he intends to enforce current U.S. immigration laws.
While expressing support for Biden’s plan to introduce “an immigration reform bill that once and for all fixes what, I think we all can agree, is a broken immigration system,” Mayorkas also made clear that he intends to legally execute the president-elect’s other promised actions, such as halting the construction of wall along the southern border. He also stated repeatedly that he does not support abolishing ICE, and cited his endorsements from law enforcement organizations including the pro-Trump National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents U.S. Border Patrol agents.
Hawley, at least, was unimpressed. The Missouri Republican, who has been the subject of bipartisan backlash for promoting the false voter-fraud claims that fueled the pro-Trump rioters who stormed the Capitol earlier this month, stated Tuesday afternoon that he will block a procedural move to bypass full committee consideration for Mayorkas’s nomination, likely delaying the confirmation of a new DHS secretary until after Biden’s inauguration.
“We are facing unprecedented challenges and threats to our national security, and our country urgently needs a confirmed Secretary of Homeland Security in place on day one to protect the American people,” Sean Savett, a spokesperson for the Biden transition team, said in response to Hawley’s move to block a quick confirmation vote for Mayorkas. “The Senate held swift confirmation votes for the DHS Secretary nominee in 2009 and 2017 in order for them to start on day one for good reason. Senator Hawley's threat to disrupt historical practice and try to leave this vital position vacant is dangerous, especially in this time of overlapping crises when there is not a moment to waste."
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