Alejandro Mayorkas leads a sprawling department tasked with keeping the U.S. safe from cyberattacks, domestic terrorism, natural disasters, and other looming threats. But critiques of his job performance tend to focus on one thing: immigration.
Border security has emerged as Republicans’ go-to line of attack against the Biden administration. Progressive Democrats aren’t satisfied on immigration policy either. Only six months into his tenure, Mayorkas is trying to navigate the outrage from both sides without losing sight of his broader commitment to stabilize a department long plagued by management challenges and low morale.
“We are all aware of the reality that we are tackling these issues uppermost in the American public’s mind at a time of extreme political divisiveness,” Mayorkas said in an Aug. 4 interview with Bloomberg Government. “That’s the reality of the situation. And all the more reason why the return to our axis of integrity—apolitical dedication to mission—is so vital.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s vast patchwork of missions, powered by nearly a quarter-million employees making up the third-largest Cabinet department, has caused headaches for every secretary since the department’s inception in the wake of Sept. 11.
Many say DHS secretary is the second-toughest role in Washington, after the president’s—an apt description, said Janet Napolitano, who had Mayorkas’s job during President Barack Obama’s administration.
Mayorkas is a Cuban refugee, a former prosecutor, and an Obama-era DHS official, with a diverse professional background spanning immigration, cybersecurity, and pandemic response. He’s the first immigrant to lead DHS, and the first Senate-confirmed secretary in almost two years after a series of temporary heads under former President Donald Trump.
“They stepped into a situation where DHS was politically and substantively torpedoed by the previous administration,” said Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group.
Mayorkas entered a department that consistently ranks at the bottom of federal worker surveys and appears on the Government Accountability Office’s list of “high risk” federal operations. Under Trump, it was caught in political firestorms over its treatment of migrants and its deployment of federal law enforcement officers to racial justice protests in Portland, Ore.
The department needs a broader and more stable leadership structure to be able to manage evolving threats to the nation, said Carrie Cordero, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a research group. She said she worried Mayorkas would be “sucked into the immigration and border security vector,” but he’s taken a wider view.
Napolitano and other former department leaders acknowledge it’s a difficult line to walk. “Every secretary’s got to balance different stakeholders,” said Chad Wolf, who led DHS for a year during the Trump administration.
But efforts to make DHS run more smoothly rarely get airtime on Capitol Hill, especially as Republicans make border security a top campaign issue ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
“The numbers are so overwhelming, and they keep getting higher and higher,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said in an interview. “It’s just overwhelming everything else at DHS.”
U.S. officials reported more than 188,000 encounters with migrants at the southern border in June, the highest in decades, though many were making repeat attempts. Preliminary data indicates 210,000 encounters last month.
Ultra-conservative and moderate Republicans alike took turns berating the secretary on border crossing numbers during a recent Senate hearing that ostensibly focused on DHS’s broad budgetary needs.
“Republicans are really angry at the situation at the border,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government affairs for the low-immigration group NumbersUSA.
When Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) offered Mayorkas a brief reprieve, pressing for an update on DHS’s efforts to improve management, the conversation swiftly returned to immigration, with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) questioning Mayorkas on why the U.S. won’t finish constructing a wall along the southern border.
“My hope is that at time goes by, we’ll focus less on the kind of issues that were raised today by our Republican colleagues, and focus more on the kinds of issues that I think we need to,” Carper said later in an interview.
Immigrants’ rights advocates are frustrated with Mayorkas, too, over what they see as a lack of urgency on reducing immigrant detention and ending some Trump-era policies.
Of particular concern to advocates is the Biden administration’s continued reliance on Title 42, which allows for the immediate expulsion of many migrants arriving at the border during the pandemic on public health grounds. The groups say the restrictions aren’t necessary to protect health, particularly with widespread vaccine availability.
Mayorkas also drew scorn from progressives and some conservatives when he announced in July that Cubans and Haitians attempting to flee their unstable countries by sea would be intercepted by the Coast Guard and sent home. It wasn’t a change in policy, but his language—”You will not come to the United States”—struck critics as harsh, and even hypocritical coming from a Cuban refugee.
Advocates fear a replay of the Obama administration’s escalation of immigration enforcement and deportations, which they viewed as a futile effort to build credibility with conservatives in Congress to advance a broad immigration overhaul.
“That did not work, so I would hope that that’s a ghost that haunts the people who are at the White House today, and of course Secretary Mayorkas as well,” said Naureen Shah, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Some of Mayorkas’ harshest critics lie within his own agency.
The National Border Patrol Council openly criticizes the Biden administration’s immigration policies. The National ICE Council, which represents many U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, supported Trump’s reelection bid.
Mayorkas acknowledged that the border situation “stresses the Border Patrol tremendously.” He said he’ll continue to meet with agents to “hear their concerns and try to address them as best we can.”
His team has also taken steps to address morale across DHS, including seeking an outside consultant on workforce issues. It takes time to address “fundamental issues,” including pay and equity within the department, he said, but it’s part of a larger effort to strengthen the institution.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, given the department’s critical and staggering workload, which Mayorkas rattles off with ease: domestic terrorism, cybersecurity, extreme weather, the Covid-19 pandemic.
He pauses for a beat and finishes the list.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org