Biden Picks Cuban-American Jewish Lawyer Mayorkas as U.S. Homeland Security Chief

Praised as a talented manager with knowledge of DHS, Mayorkas has emphasized the heightened threat facing American Jews

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FILE PHOTO: Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. deputy secretary of homeland security gestures as he speaks during the annual Cyberweek conference at Tel Aviv University, Israel June 20, 2016
FILE PHOTO: Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. deputy secretary of homeland security gestures as he speaks during the annual Cyberweek conference at Tel Aviv University, Israel June 20, 2016Credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will nominate Alejandro Mayorkas to become U.S. secretary of homeland security, Biden's transition team said on Monday, entrusting the Cuban immigrant to help reverse outgoing President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration policies.

Mayorkas, a former federal prosecutor in California, served as deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under President Barack Obama when Biden was vice president. Mayorkas, the Obama administration's highest-ranking Cuban American official, became one of Biden's latest Cabinet selections as the Democratic former vice president prepares to take office on Jan. 20.

Mayorkas was born to a Cuban Jewish father and Romanian Jewish mother, who is a Holocaust survivor. As deputy secretary, he worked closely with Jewish groups and spoke often about the specific threats facing American Jews.

Speaking in 2016 to the annual Washington conference of the Orthodox Union about nonprofit security grants, Mayorkas said, “The need is most acute in the Jewish community because of the ascension of antisemitism and hate crimes we see.”

Mayorkas grounded his concern in his background and his upbringing. Among the things that “keep me up at night,” he said at the time, was the threat to “my community,” the Jewish community.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Mayorkas would become the first foreign-born leader of the sprawling department that was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 1, 2001, attacks on the United States. DHS boasts 240,000 employees and is responsible for border security, immigration enforcement, cybersecurity, disaster readiness and relief, among other portfolios.

Among its agencies are U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB), whose actions have drawn criticism from immigrant-rights advocates. It also includes the U.S. Coast Guard and Secret Service.

Mayorkas, 60, was born in Havana and came to the United States as a political refugee when he was roughly a year old with his family, fleeing the communist-ruled island nation, moving first to Florida and then California. He is currently a partner at the law firm WilmerHale.

Biden has pledged to undo many of Trump's restrictive immigration policies. The hundreds of planned changes could take months or years to implement. Some pro-immigrant activists favored Mayorkas for the DHS role.

On the first day of his presidency, Biden intends to rescind Trump's travel bans targeting people from 13 countries - most of them either majority-Muslim or African nations. He also plans to send immigration legislation to Congress that would include a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.

Biden also plans to revitalize the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program put in place by Trump's Democratic predecessor Barack Obama that offered protections to the so-called Dreamers - hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the United States illegally after entering as children. Trump sought to rescind the program but was blocked by the Supreme Court in June.

Several former colleagues praised Mayorkas as a talented manager with knowledge of DHS and experience in both law enforcement and immigration.

"He is an enforcement guy, but has a very deep and rich humanitarian core," said Seth Stodder, a former DHS official during the Obama administration who worked on border, immigration and trade policy.

Mayorkas joined the Obama administration in 2009 as the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency.

In that role, he oversaw the implementation of DACA, which was up and running 60 days after being announced. The program protected eligible immigrants from deportation and provided them work permits. Mayorkas navigated logistical and legal obstacles to meet an ambitious implementation deadline, according to Stephen Legomsky, who was the USCIS chief counsel at the time.

"We were tied up in knots for 60 days and Ali somehow got it together," Legomsky said.

Biden has pledged to push for legislation that would enable Dreamers, mostly young Hispanic adults born in Mexico and other Latin American countries, to obtain citizenship. Nearly half of current DACA recipients live in California and Texas.

Ron Kampeas and JTA contributed to this report.

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