Radio Website Header-Waves 6 3.0.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Biden Choses Alejandro Mayorkas As His Secretary Of Homeland Security

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If confirmed, Alejandro Mayorkas would be the first Latino and the first immigrant to become secretary of Homeland Security. The Biden transition team announced his nomination today. He'd be taking on a big job, leading a sprawling department that's charged with protecting the president, airport screening and cybersecurity. But the biggest change is likely to be how the department handles immigration and border security. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration. He joins us now.

Joel, what else can you tell us about his background?

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, he's a veteran of the Obama administration, a former deputy secretary at DHS, also a former federal prosecutor in California, where he grew up. As you said, he is an immigrant - born in Cuba. His parents fled the communist regime to the U.S. when he was very young. Here is Mayorkas a few years ago talking about how that shaped his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: I'm a political refugee, and my identity as a political refugee was extraordinarily important to my upbringing. And my parents were very focused on instilling in me a deep sense of what it means and what it meant to be an individual displaced from one's home.

ROSE: So this nomination already marks a symbolic shift away from the Trump administration, which drastically cut the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. and regularly portrayed refugees and asylum-seekers as a burden and threat.

CORNISH: Does this reflect in any way the Biden administration's priorities for DHS?

ROSE: Well, Mayorkas will be the one tasked with undoing many of President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration policies, as Biden has promised to do. I talked to Shev Dalal-Dheini about him. She worked with Mayorkas at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and is now with the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

SHEV DALAL-DHEINI: It sends a signal that the Biden administration is serious about reforming all the wrongs that have happened to our immigration system in the past four years because by selecting someone who has deep immigration expertise as secretary, it signals that this will be a big priority.

ROSE: Immigrant advocates seem very happy with this choice. Mayorkas also served as director of the agency in charge of legal immigration, and he was one of the original architects of DACA, the program that shields immigrants brought to the country illegally as children from deportation. And they think his experience will help him deliver on Biden's promises to quickly reinstate DACA in full, for example, also to get rid of the Trump administration's travel ban.

CORNISH: Can you talk about some of the challenges that he's likely to face?

ROSE: Well, one big problem is morale. On the one hand, the agency that handles visas and legal immigration has been plagued by financial problems. He'll have to address that. On the other hand, people at enforcement agencies inside DHS, like the Border Patrol, welcomed many of the Trump administration's policies, including the border wall. And they will not be happy to see those policies go away. And some of President Trump's policies will not be so easy to undo, particularly at the southern border. Biden has pledged to restore protections for asylum-seekers, but the trick will be to do that in a way that does not also invite a new surge of migrants seeking entry at the border. And that's going to be a difficult balancing act.

CORNISH: Finally, his chances at confirmation.

ROSE: Well, a lot will depend, probably, on who controls the Senate. I should note that Mayorkas did win Senate confirmation for his previous post at DHS, although that was not without some controversy. At the time, he was criticized by the department's inspector general, who accused Mayorkas of creating an appearance of favoritism in how visas were awarded to some wealthy investors who had ties to powerful Democrats. Mayorkas denies any wrongdoing, but those old allegations are getting a lot of attention today from immigration hard-liners. And we will see whether this turns into a big deal at his confirmation hearing this time around.

CORNISH: NPR's Joel Rose.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROY AYERS UBIQUITY "LIFELINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.