The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Alejandro Mayorkas to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in a 56-43 vote, against a poignant opposition from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell asking Republicans to vote against the confirmation.
Mayorkas is the first Latino and first immigrant at the helm in a department responsible for enforcing US immigration laws. He was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1959, to a Cuban Jewish man of Sephardic background and a Romanian Jewish woman whose family fled to Cuba in the 1940s. After the Fidel Castro revolution, his parents fled Cuba Alejandro and his sister to the United States in 1960. They first lived in Miami, Florida, and later moved to Beverly Hills where he grew up.
Mayorkas told the Jerusalem Post in 2016 that he always had a strong sense of his “identity as a refugee from Cuba; a very strong identity as a Cuban-American… as well as a member of the Hispanic community in the US, and a strong Jewish identity.”
He first visited Israel in 1977 and returned many times in his capacity at the Department of Homeland Security, catching up with relatives he had not seen in some time. He told the Post that loves Israeli food and the atmosphere in the Mahaneh Yehuda open market in Jerusalem. He said: “It is special to see family… it is also very special to enhance and strengthen the relations between our two countries, to forge a partnership with Israel.”
Six Republican Senators voted with Democrats to break the GOP filibuster against the nomination, which was urged by McConnell over a 2015 Homeland Security inspector general report that criticized Mayorkas’ conduct.
The inspector general report criticized Mayorkas’ oversight of the EB-5 investor visa program, which offered lawful permanent resident status (green cards) to foreign investors who invested $500,000 in businesses that created jobs in the US. The program’s popularity greatly increased during Mayorkas’s tenure, and the report focused on allegations that politically connected businesses were given special treatment under the program. The report cited specifically the Sahara casino and hotel in Las Vegas that was connected to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; and an electric car company connected to Terry McAuliffe and Anthony Rodham (Hillary Clinton’s younger brother).
The report concluded that “The juxtaposition of Mr. Mayorkas’ communication with external stakeholders on specific matters outside the normal procedures, coupled with favorable action that deviated from the regulatory scheme designed to ensure fairness and evenhandedness in adjudicating benefits, created an appearance of favoritism and special access.”
When President-elect Joe Biden announced on November 23, 2020, his plan to nominate Mayorkas as Secretary of Homeland Security, Mayorkas received the support of the Fraternal Order of Police and the endorsements of former secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff (both of whom had served under President GW Bush) and Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson (Barack Obama). All four said Biden “could not have found a more qualified person.”
But on January 19, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) moved to block Mayorkas’ swift confirmation, explaining that Mayorkas “has not adequately explained how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border given Biden’s promise to roll back major enforcement and security measures.”
He led the DHS’s negotiations with Israel and China on cybersecurity. As Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, Mayorkas was involved in the Department’s counterterrorism and anti-cybercrime efforts, as well as its public-private partnerships, and the fight against anti-Semitism. He was honored by the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federations “for work combating anti-Semitism as part of his homeland security responsibilities.”
He led the DHS’s negotiations with Israel and China on cybersecurity. During his tenure, DHS greatly expanded its Cyber Crimes Center in Fairfax, Virginia, to combat cybercrimes ranging from child exploitation to computer hacking and intellectual property theft.