WASHINGTON – In a hearing Tuesday that highlighted Republican opposition to his confirmation, homeland security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas told senators that he would carry out President-elect Joe Biden’s immigration overhaul while intensifying efforts to fight domestic extremism,.
Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mayorkas wore a blue mask and listened impassively to questions about his management style and involvement in a visa program for wealthy investors.
Mayorkas, 61, is expected to be confirmed because Democrats picked up two additional Senate seats this month in Georgia. But legislative aides from both major political parties said it is unclear how quickly that will occur.
Democrats are pushing for Mayorkas’s rapid confirmation, saying it is crucial to have top national security officials in place given the recent siege on the U.S. Capitol, cyberattacks on federal agencies, and the coronavirus pandemic.
But Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., the focus of resentment for challenging Biden’s election and, critics say, helping to incite the violent mob who attacked the Capitol, moved later Tuesday to block the fast-track confirmation process, saying he was dissatisfied with Mayorkas’s responses to questions about the Biden immigration agenda. Hawley is a member of the homeland security committee.
A spokesman for Mayorkas, Sean Savett, called Hawley’s move “dangerous, especially in this time of overlapping crises when there is not a moment to waste.”
Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee responded bitterly. “His games are, AGAIN, putting our national security at risk,” they said in a tweet.
Some Senate Republicans raised concerns about a 2015 inspector general report that said Mayorkas intervened in a visa program for wealthy investors at the behest of politically connected Democrats. The report found that Mayorkas, the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the time, did not break any laws but created the appearance of “special access” because he got involved in three projects that were headed for rejection, and all were approved.
Mayorkas told senators that he fixed problems in a troubled government agency that was supposed to create American jobs, and that the cases were among “hundreds” he examined at the request of lawmakers from both major political parties.
Amid questioning from the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Mayorkas said he took issue with the term “intervene” because it was his job to get involved.
“I don’t drive to be a government servant and serve the American public to cut ribbons around the country and have fun,” Mayorkas said. “I work really hard. And I worked really, really, hard throughout my nearly 20 years of government service to bring honor to the office that I have been privileged to occupy.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, also raised the report as a concern, saying he wondered why Mayorkas, when approached by politically connected people, did not say to himself, “Holy cow, I’ve got to step back.”
Mayorkas told Romney that he had learned from the episode. “I did in fact learn, senator, how to better guard against the perception” of favoritism, he said.
Mayorkas also testified on the issue in 2013 before he was confirmed for the No. 2 job at the Homeland Security Department; Republicans boycotted that hearing and voted against him that year.
Immigration enforcement was the other major theme of the hearing. Asked whether the U.S.-Mexico border needed more barriers, Mayorkas told senators that border security is “not a monolithic challenge,” quoting the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whom he called “an American hero.”
“The border is varied,” he said, and enforcement should be determined by “geography, the venue and conduct of individuals around it.”
Mayorkas was pressed repeatedly by GOP senators about whether migrants seeking better economic opportunities were eligible for asylum in the United States. The law does not cover applicants seeking humanitarian protections on those grounds, Mayorkas said.
“We are a nation of immigrants,” Mayorkas said. “We are also a nation of laws. I intend to apply the law.”
Mayorkas said he did not support “defunding” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has become a target of liberal Democrats upset by the agency’s aggressive approach under President Donald Trump. But Mayorkas deferred questions about whether he supported the emergency enforcement measures the Trump administration implemented at the border during the coronavirus pandemic that allow U.S. agents to rapidly “expel” most illegal crossers to Mexico.
“Our highest priority is to protect the health and well-being of the American public,” said Mayorkas. He said he needed more time to study the emergency measures.
When Romney asked about a large caravan of Honduran migrants who have been attempting to travel north in recent days, telling some reporters that Biden will allow them to enter the United States, Mayorkas declined to say whether U.S. authorities should try to stop them. Guatemalan riot police have blocked the migrants along the highway, clubbing and arresting them.
“If people qualify under the law to remain in the United States, we will apply the law,” Mayorkas said. “If they do not qualify, then they won’t.”
Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada was one of several Democrats who expressed concerns about the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol and the growing threat of anti-Semitic and white supremacist groups.
“I am profoundly aware of the threat and existence of anti-Semitism in our country and the world,” said Mayorkas, whose Romanian-born mother’s relatives were killed in the Holocaust. “I have dedicated a considerable amount of my career to battling anti-Semitism and discrimination in all forms.”
Mayorkas called the Capitol siege “horrifying,” vowing to senators that the “terror” they and staffers felt “will not happen again.”
Romney said at the hearing that the United States is “woefully unprepared” on cybersecurity, and he urged Mayorkas to bring a “whole different level of expertise” to confront such attackers. Authorities said in recent weeks that cyberspies, probably with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, breached networks at the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, Commerce, State and Energy.
Mayorkas said cybersecurity has long been a priority for him, including when he served as the deputy to Secretary Jeh Johnson during the Obama administration.
“The threat has only evolved and only grown since then,” Mayorkas said. “I can assure you that the cybersecurity of our nation will be one of my highest priorities because I concur with you that the threat is real and the threat is every day, and we have to do a much better job than we are doing now.”
The department has not had a Senate-confirmed leader in nearly two years, a vacuum in an agency created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to fight terrorism. It is the third-largest federal agency, with 240,000 employees, a $50 billion budget and a broad national security mandate to safeguard ports and borders, enforce immigration laws and defend against attacks on U.S. cyber networks.