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An immigrant to get the job done at Homeland Security

An immigrant to get the job done at Homeland Security
© Getty Images

Last Monday, President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack MORE chose Alejandro Mayorkas to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees immigration policy and border security among its vast portfolio of responsibilities. 

In recent years, the department has been at the forefront of President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE’s agenda to militarize border security, separate asylum-seeking families, slash refugee admissions, end protections for DREAMers and build additional walls along the border with Mexico.

Mayorkas’s background signals a stark contrast with recent predecessors who have unquestioningly championed these policies. Not only is he a seasoned veteran of the department, he is also poised to become the first immigrant and Latino to lead it. 

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His father was a Cuban native and Sephardic Jew — and his mother, a Romanian Jew, fled with her family to Cuba amid Nazi persecution in the 1940s. The family then fled to the U.S. in 1960, when Mayorkas was just a baby, as a result of the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.

In his first public statement since news of the nomination broke, Mayorkas noted that, “the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge. Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.”

It is particularly revealing of his character that Mayorkas explicitly includes refugees and asylum seekers within the protection of the federal government. This kind of express compassion and humanitarian tone has been completely absent over the past four years — at a time, no less, when 80 million people have been displaced by violence, war and persecution. As someone who was forced to flee Sri Lanka on the brink of civil war, and who now leads a national refugee resettlement organization, this rhetoric and representation truly feels like the dawn of a new era of possibilities.

But Mayorkas’s qualifications go well beyond his personal experience as an immigrant. He previously served seven years in the Obama administration: four years as the Senate-confirmed director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and another three years as the deputy secretary of DHS. 

Whereas DHS secretaries under the Trump administration were active and complicit in the heartless and illegal separation of migrant families, Mayorkas was responsible for implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program during his tenure as director of USCIS, thereby protecting more than 700,000 DREAMers from deportation. To even the most casual follower of immigration policy, the difference is night and day.

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It is almost poetic that an immigrant and former refugee serve as our nation’s highest security official given the data that demonstrates how immigrants and refugees make us significantly safer. The most direct example of this are the 530,000 foreign-born veterans living in the U.S. right now. In addition, a study that examined the top U.S. cities that received the most refugees per capita found that nine of 10 actually became considerably safer, both in terms of violent and property crime. Additional research has thoroughly busted the myth that undocumented immigrants lead to higher crime rates — to the contrary, states with larger shares of undocumented immigrants tend to have lower crime rates than states with smaller shares.

That Mayorkas’s nomination should come amid a global pandemic is no accident either. During his tenure at DHS, he oversaw the Department’s response to both Ebola and Zika. Given that the Trump administration’s legacy will be defined by a vehemently anti-immigrant agenda and a failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems fitting that Biden’s nominee comes tested and ready on day one to rebuild a decimated immigration infrastructure and respond to the most pressing security threat we face — one that has already claimed over 266,000 American lives.

This personnel decision is well in line with the Biden transition’s laser focus on tested experience and humanitarian expertise. Tony Blinken, Biden’s choice for Secretary of State and a former deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration, boasts a career in foreign policy and proven experience in addressing the global refugee crisis. Blinken’s connection to this work is personal as well — he is the stepson of a Holocaust survivor, whose stories have certainly informed his worldview and understanding of America’s role as the world’s moral compass. 

Should Mayorkas and Blinken be confirmed by the Senate, we may see the dawn of a new day for refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and all who stand for welcoming our newest neighbors in need. There is much work to be done, but it seems the American people will have staunch allies who understand that we are at our fundamental best when we build bridges, not walls.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a former senior adviser in the State Department, and former Policy Director for First Lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaMichelle Obama on coping with low-grade depression: 'Nobody rides life on a high' Sarah Silverman urges Congress to pass voting bill: 'What kind of politician wants to keep people from voting?' Michelle Obama: 'You wanna hang out with us? Get your vaccine' MORE.