Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas testifies during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas testifies during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. Joshua Roberts/Pool via AP

Biden's DHS Pick Defends Ethics Record, Promises Morale Boost for Workforce

Alejandro Mayorkas faces sharp questions over prior controversy despite praise for his service.

President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Homeland Security Department faced pointed questioning over a controversy from his previous federal service, even as lawmakers in both parties agreed on the pressing need to finally confirm a secretary to the government’s third-largest agency. 

Criticism for Alejandro Mayorkas broke down along party lines at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, with Republicans largely focusing on a 2015 inspector general report that found the DHS secretary-designate created the appearance of improper political influence when he intervened in various cases before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services while he was the agency’s director.

A DHS veteran who also served as the department’s deputy secretary during President Obama’s second term, Mayorkas vowed to treat the 240,000 employees he would lead with dignity and boost their morale after tumultuous leadership during the Trump administration. He added the “greatest source of pride” in his career is how he has treated the employees he managed. 

Democrats on the committee praised and defended Mayorkas, unanimously proposing their colleagues move quickly to confirm him as the first Senate-approved secretary since 2018. Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf stepped down last week after a long battle over the legality of his appointment, including a Government Accountability Office report and court rulings that found he was not lawfully serving in that role. Lawmakers praised Mayorkas’ experience and the ease with which they worked with him in the Obama years. 

Several Republicans, however, blasted the nominee over the 2015 report, citing career employees who criticized his management style and outsized role in front-line decision making. Mayorkas said on Tuesday, as he did at the time of the report, that he was aiming to use his authorities to fix a badly broken Employment-Based Fifth Preference program, known as EB-5. The IG report, he said, which focused on three cases in which high-profile Democratic officials had contacted him seeking assistance, ignored “hundreds and hundreds” of instances in which he sought to break logjams in the system. 

“When a leader enters federal service with the authority to fix problems, that leader has the responsibility to fix problems,” Mayorkas said. He rejected the suggestion that he “intervened” in the cases, saying it was his job to address problems his agency confronted. The problems with EB-5 were vast, he said, and requests for assistance came frequently from both sides of the aisle. 

The IG report “created a misperception of what fuels me as a government servant,” he said, explaining his only goal was to improve the functioning of his agency. 

“I don’t drive to be a government servant to cut ribbons around the country and have fun. I work hard,” Mayorkas said. “I studied the law and I followed the facts. That is my north star and it always has been.” 

He added that he agreed with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, on the need to address the perception of favoritism, and he helped launch “guardrails” after the IG report “so there is trust and confidence in the decision making of government leaders.” 

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is briefly serving as the committee’s chairman before three new Democrats are sworn into office on Wednesday and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., takes his place, said he had productive talks with Mayorkas prior to the hearing but suggested he still had some concerns. 

“Ultimately I believe this hearing is about ensuring strong, effective and ethical leadership of the critically important and sprawling Department of Homeland Security,” Portman said. “Leadership is required.” 

While recent DHS secretaries-designate were confirmed on Inauguration Day, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he would object to a quick approval process over his concerns about Biden's immigration and border security proposals. Hawley, a staunch immigration restrictionist, said Mayorkas "has not adequately explained how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border."

While morale among DHS employees has sagged for more than a decade, Mayorkas highlighted that it ticked up slightly during his time as deputy secretary. He added that he “prioritized the morale” of workers while he led USCIS. 

“We focused on equipping the workforce with tools they needed to do their jobs ably and in a manner that they could be proud of,” he said. “We created opportunities for them to advance in their careers and fulfill their highest ambitions.” The secretary-designate added that if confirmed he will “make the wellbeing and morale of the brave men and women of the department the highest priority.”

Mayorkas could have his work cut out for him, as a large contingent of frontline DHS personnel were sympathetic to Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration enforcement and job satisfaction scores were higher during the president’s term in office. Biden has promised to roll back many of those policies, which the Trump administration touted from its opening months in office as “taking the shackles off” of DHS employees. The National Border Patrol Council, for example, campaigned heavily for Trump. Mayorkas said, however, that he has met with both that labor group and the National Treasury Employees Union council that represents Custom and Border Protection officers and both are supporting his nomination. 

Matching the president-elect’s language, Mayorkas said he has no interest in getting rid of CBP or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Biden has promised a 100-day pause on all deportations upon taking office.

“ICE and CBP play critical roles in the federal government and I would not abolish them,” Mayorkas said. He added that Biden would pause construction on Trump’s border wall project, but said he had to “study” whether the barriers already constructed should remain. 

John Sandweg, who also held multiple leadership positions at DHS under Obama, predicted Mayorkas would run into little resistance once confirmed. He explained that "if there is anyone who is good at building bridges," it's Mayorkas. The transition once Mayorkas is confirmed will be different in that he is a "known commodity" who has personal relationships already with many senior leaders, Sandweg said, and he "already commands respect and is viewed very highly by the workforce." 

"The DHS career workforce are incredible public servants," added Sandweg, who is now a partner at Nixon Peabody. "They have their own political views but they know it’s their job to help the president execute policies." 

Mayorkas said he was "well aware" of the dangers front-line employees face during the COVID-19 pandemic and would further study how to quickly vaccinate his entire workforce. DHS last week rolled out a joint effort with the Veterans Affairs Department to vaccinate employees at VA facilities, but has so far set up the inoculations as just eight sites. 

Biden’s pick to lead DHS has won bipartisan backing in the form of several of his predecessors. Former Secretaries Michael Chertoff, Jeh Johnson, Janet Napolitano and Tom Ridge wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post last week calling for a quick nomination so Mayorkas can address problems like large-scale cyberattacks, border security, violent white nationalism and wildfires. “Staff shakeups and firings [and] the gross politicization of the agency’s mission” under Trump have created a toxic environment at DHS, they said. 

“We each know Mayorkas as a man of character, integrity, experience and compassion,” the former secretaries wrote, adding he “needs no on-the-job training.”