President Joe Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security moved forward amid calls by lawmakers, including some Republicans, to quickly fill a position with a central role in managing the nation’s response to the pandemic, a sweeping Russia-linked cyber-attack and the rising threat from domestic extremism.
Watch the nomination vote in the video player above.
Alejandro Mayorkas, who would be the first Hispanic and first immigrant to serve as secretary of DHS, is expected to lead a broad policy overhaul of an agency that was at the forefront of some of President Donald Trump’s most prominent initiatives on immigration and law enforcement and was accused of becoming politicized as a result.
The nomination was opposed by several Republican members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, who cited a 2015 Inspector General report that criticized Mayorkas for his management of an investment visa program when he served under President Barack Obama or broader concerns about Biden’s plans for immigration policy.
But even Republicans who expressed reservations said it was critical to fill the position with the nation facing so many challenges, including the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters seeking to overturn the election.
“I drove through the National Guard again to get here this morning. We’ve got some real issues,” said Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio as he voted to send the nomination from the committee to the full Senate for a vote.
Mayorkas, whose family came to the U.S. from Cuba as refugees in 1960, was a federal prosecutor in Southern California before he joined the Obama administration, first as head of the immigration services agency and then as deputy secretary of DHS.
He will lead an agency that was in frequent turmoil and mired in controversy under Trump.
DHS carried out a range of heavy-handed immigration enforcement initiatives, most notoriously separating migrant children from their families as part of a zero-tolerance campaign in 2018.
Over the summer, the agency was widely condemned, including by some former secretaries, for deploying tactical agents without nametags and insignia to protests in Portland, Oregon, against the wishes of local authorities.
In September, a senior official filed a whistleblower complaint accusing Homeland Security leaders of downplaying threat warnings that Trump might find objectionable, including information about Russian election interference and the rising threat posed by white supremacists. And the president ousted the widely respected head of the DHS cyber-security agency in November for his defense of the integrity of the 2020 election.
Mayorkas, who rejected a proposal to separate families when he served under Obama, has pledged to “end the inhumane and unjust treatment of immigrants,” but to also to maintain border enforcement.
“We are a nation of immigrants and we are also a nation of laws,” he said during his confirmation hearing.
At his confirmation hearing, senators raised the 2015 report by the Office of Inspector General that criticized Mayorkas for his management of a program that granted U.S. residency to foreign investors. The investigation found he created an appearance of favoritism and political interference by directing the approval of three projects backed by prominent Democrats, overruling staff recommendations when he ran the immigration services agency under Obama.
Mayorkas disputed the IG report conclusion and told senators he intervened on decisions, on behalf of both Republicans and Democrats, to correct what he considered wrong actions.
“When a leader enters federal service with the authority to fix problems, that leader has the responsibility to fix problems, and that is what I did,” he said.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, another Republican member of the Homeland Security committee who voted to send the nomination to the Senate floor for a vote, said he discussed the report at length with Mayorkas in private and was satisfied he considered his action an “error” that he would not repeat.
“We just endured a president over four years that I’ll say generously had a relaxed relationship with the truth ad I think we want the highest level of integrity in positions of government,” Romney said.