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Senators vet Mayorkas to take lead at DHS

Senators vet Mayorkas to take lead at DHS
© Reuters/Pool

Senators on Tuesday spent the last full day of the Trump administration vetting Alejandro MayorkasAlejandro MayorkasPsaki: 'We don't take advice' from Trump on immigration MSNBC's Jacob Soboroff doesn't let falling equipment stop his report Republicans call for hearing on Biden's handling of border surge MORE, President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Myanmar military conducts violent night raids Confidence in coronavirus vaccines has grown with majority now saying they want it MORE’s pick to lead a major turnaround at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

A Cuban immigrant whose mother fled the Holocaust, Mayorkas has often said his family’s journey to America influences his drive for service in an agency with responsibilities for both securing the border and managing immigration.

If confirmed, he would come to the job with substantial experience in the department, having served as deputy DHS secretary during the Obama administration and the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

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“The principles of homeland and security have been tremendously important in shaping my life. My father and mother brought me to this country to escape communism, and to provide me with the security, opportunity, and pride that American citizenship brings to each of us," Mayorkas told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. "I was raised to appreciate each day what this country has meant for our family, and the blessing it is to know it is our homeland."

Mayorkas appeared before senators on Tuesday along with a slate of officials tapped to head national security positions within the Biden administration, with lawmakers on other committees weighing the nominations of director for national intelligence pick Avril Haines, Tony Blinken to lead the State Department and retired Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinSunday shows preview: Manchin makes the rounds after pivotal role in coronavirus relief debate US proposes new summit with Taliban on interim Afghan government Overnight Defense: White House open to reforming war powers | Army base might house migrant children | Fauci scolds military on vaccine MORE to head up the Pentagon.

But his nomination has already hit a rocky path, with Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyDeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Chamber of Commerce clarifies stance on lawmakers who voted against election certification Crenshaw pours cold water on 2024 White House bid: 'Something will emerge' MORE (R-Mo.) placing a hold on it, arguing that Mayorkas “has not adequately explained how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border.”

His hold could stall a nomination otherwise expected to advance once Democrats gain control of the Senate on Wednesday. Defeating the hold will require a 50-vote threshold cloture vote and eats up days of floor time, complicating the process.

Homeland Security is one of several agencies that has faced criticism in the days after the deadly riots at the Capitol, one of many factors that Biden and Democrats argue makes the DHS post a top priority.

“We've seen this department [in] turmoil over the last four years," said Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.).

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“Ali Mayorkas will bring the kind of steady hand that this department needs,” Tester added, using a nickname as he introduced Mayorkas. “I would hope this committee would ... get him to the Senate floor so we can get confirmed. Because honestly, after the events on Jan. 6, we have no time to waste.”

Mayorkas vowed to protect the Capitol and deal with threats ranging from cyberattacks to the dangers of extremism and domestic terrorism, along with assisting with the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

“If I should have the honor of being confirmed, 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,” he said.

Mayorkas would take over the reins at DHS after the department has churned through six leaders under the Trump administration and separated more than 600 immigrant children from their parents as they crossed the border. 

He has won accolades from Democrats for spearheading the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that allows children brought into the U.S. by their parents the chance to get a work visa.

Mayorkas has most recently worked at law firm WilmerHale and was previously a federal prosecutor before working his way up the ranks at DHS.

He has not embraced calls from the left to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency overseen by DHS that was accused of being too aggressive during the Trump years.

But Mayorkas said he would resist efforts to expand President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Albany Times Union editorial board calls for Cuomo's resignation Advocates warn restrictive voting bills could end Georgia's record turnout MORE’s border wall and said he does not view a lack of opportunity as a reason for immigrant hopefuls to claim asylum.

“It's not a monolithic challenge, the border. The border is varied depending on the geography, depending on the specific venue, and depending on the conduct of individuals around it. We don't need, nor should we have a monolithic answer to that varied and diverse challenge,” he said, adding that he sees aid to other nations to improve their own economies as part of the U.S. strategy to address immigration.

But many Republicans in the hearing focused on a 2015 inspector general report that found that Mayorkas got involved in immigration cases with ties to Democrats.

The report concerns the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa Program, which gives visas to those expected to make major investments in the U.S.

The report highlights three cases where Mayorkas intervened, each tied to high-ranking Democrats: a Las Vegas casino pushed by then-Sen. Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidNevada looks to shake up presidential primary calendar Biden turns focus to next priority with infrastructure talks How to pass legislation in the Senate without eliminating the filibuster MORE (D-Nev.), a film project tied to former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), and an electric car company connected to former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Anthony Rodham, former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: China implicated in Microsoft breach | White House adds Big Tech critic | QAnon unfazed after false prediction Jill Biden redefines role of first lady QAnon supporters unfazed after another false prediction MORE’s brother. The report notes investor visas tied to each project would have been unlikely to be approved without Mayorkas's involvement.

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The inspector general report concluded that Mayorkas’s action gave the “appearance of favoritism and special access,” but that the then-USCIS leader’s decisions were “legitimately within his purview.” It also noted that Mayorkas declined to become involved in matters where he did not think his influence would be appropriate.

In response to questions from multiple Republican lawmakers, Mayorkas said on Tuesday that he stepped into a visa program that was “plagued by problems,” adding that it is the responsibility of leaders to step in and fix problems within their agency. 

“I fixed problems through the cases that the agency handled. The cases that you mentioned, the three cases that are cited in the inspector general's report, are three of hundreds and hundreds of cases that I became involved in at the request of senators and members of the House of Representatives on both sides of the aisle,” he said. 

The nearly 100-page inspector general report includes a roughly 30-page rebuttal by Mayorkas, outlining his rationale for involvement.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDemocratic centrists flex power on Biden legislation Ron Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Romney's TRUST Act is a Trojan Horse to cut seniors' benefits MORE (R-Utah) asked Mayorkas if he had learned anything from the episode.

“Looking back on these circumstances, should you have not said ‘Because I had been called by a leading Democrat’ whether Gov. Rendell, or others of that nature, but in a circumstance like this ‘because of my political connection I should recuse myself and let others take that responsibility.’ Is that not the appropriate action to take when something has the very distinct appearance of political favoritism?” Romney asked Mayorkas.

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Mayorkas credited the report with helping to establish better guardrails for involvement in such cases.

“I did, in fact, learn, senator, how to better guard against a perception, and I agree with you, 100 percent that it is our obligation to guard against that perception, so that there is trust and confidence in the decisionmaking of government leaders,” he replied.

Some Democrats pushed back on Republicans’ focus on the report. 

“To allow these unfounded allegations to cloud @AliMayorkas' unblemished career in public service — at a time when the Department so critically needs a qualified and capable leader — is irresponsible at best, and dangerous at worst,” Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperSenate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote Senate holds longest vote in history as Democrats scramble to save relief bill Biden gets involved to help break Senate logjam MORE (D-Del.) said of his Republican colleagues on Twitter.

—Updated at 4:36 p.m.