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Senate panel advances Mayorkas bid to lead Homeland Security

Timing for a Senate floor vote to confirm Biden's nominee remains uncertain

Alejandro Mayorkas, nominee to be secretary of Homeland Security, during testimony last week before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Alejandro Mayorkas, nominee to be secretary of Homeland Security, during testimony last week before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A Senate committee on Tuesday advanced Alejandro Mayorkas’ nomination to lead the Homeland Security Department to a full chamber vote, setting in motion the confirmation of the first Latino and immigrant to oversee the department.

“Our nation is facing historic security challenges right now, from the recent attack on our capital, two major cyber breaches of our federal agencies, and a pandemic that continues to take the lives of thousands of Americans every day. These are serious challenges, and we need steady, qualified and experienced leaders at DHS,” said Sen. Gary Peters, the Michigan Democrat and likely incoming chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Mayorkas’ nomination was approved, 7-4, with support from all committee Democrats and two Republicans: Rob Portman of Ohio, the incoming ranking member, and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. 

Portman stressed the need for a confirmed Homeland Security secretary in place to handle multiple potential threats to the nation.  

“We’ve got the massive cyber security attack that we aren’t talking about much because it seems like everything else has become more important, but that probably is the most significant national security threat we’ve had in this country in years,” Portman said. 

He also noted that DHS is in need of a permanent secretary after years of leadership turmoil under the Trump administration. 

“The morale is bad, and the leadership void is real,” he said.

Last week following a hearing with Mayorkas, another Republican panel member, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., tried to block a Democratic effort to fast-track the confirmation. But in a floor speech Monday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer suggested that Mayorkas’ nomination could get a full floor vote later in the week.

A group of Republicans led by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas hoped to challenge that effort. On Monday, they requested that the Senate Judiciary Committee, which holds jurisdiction over immigration legislation, also hold a hearing on Mayorkas.

The top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the likely chairman, on Tuesday called holding a second hearing for Mayorkas “unnecessary.” He also said that further delaying the confirmation vote puts national security at risk. 

Mayorkas has been previously confirmed by the Senate three times for government positions. Under the Obama administration, he served as director of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2009 to 2013. He later went on to become deputy Homeland Security secretary.

While at DHS, Mayorkas led the implementation of the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals program that has allowed immigrants who came to the U.S. unlawfully as children to live and work here without fear of deportation. 

But his previous time in office also has drawn criticism over a 2015 DHS Inspector General report that concluded Mayorkas “exerted improper influence in the normal processing and adjudication” of a visa program geared for wealthy foreign investors.

At last week’s confirmation hearing, Mayorkas defended his actions, saying that the EB-5 visa program, which offers visa holders and their families the chance to seek permanent residency in exchange for investing heavily in U.S businesses, was already “plagued by problems.” 

“I became involved in a lot of cases,” he said. 

If confirmed by the full Senate, Mayorkas will inherit a sprawling department that oversees a number of federal agencies including two immigration agencies other than USCIS— Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Homeland Security also oversees the Transportation Security Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Secret Service, Coast Guard and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.