After a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in crowded Paris cafes and restaurants in November 2015 left 130 people dead, some members of Congress threatened to shut down the U.S. refugee program.
Alejandro “Ali” Mayorkas, then deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, sprang into action. He and other staffers manned the phones, calling individual members of Congress, pointing out the program‘s value and security features, explaining that most of the Paris attackers were not refugees. It was a Herculean, round-the-clock effort, for three days straight.
It worked. The push to remove the program fizzled.
“There are refugees who live in the United States right now because Ali Mayorkas helped save the program,” said Alexandra Veitch, who at the time worked at the White House’s Office of Legislative Affairs and collaborated with Mayorkas.
The effort illustrates the many traits former colleagues and staffers say Mayorkas possesses: Tough, hard-working, persuasive, personally invested in issues and owning an inherent empathy for the plight of refugees.
Mayorkas, 61, this week became the first Latino and immigrant to head the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a sprawling department of 240,000 employees ranging from Border Patrol agents to cybersecurity analysts. Mayorkas, who emigrated from Cuba with his parents as an infant, will take over a department roiled by constant leadership turnover under the previous Trump administration and gripped by low morale. He’s the first Senate-confirmed head of DHS since April 2019, when Kirstjen Nielsen resigned from the post.
He’s tasked with untangling the path to this country for thousands of refugees and would-be immigrants after four years of tough-on-immigration policies that saw children separated from their families and kept in cells, asylum seekers quickly deported and migrants from Muslim-majority nations banned. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden said he would find a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, an unprecedented task now on Mayorkas’ to-do list.
In a statement, Mayorkas said his background and experience make him uniquely qualified for his new role. He declined to be interviewed.
“We are a nation of immigrants, built on their energy, aspirations and ideas. It is long past time we fix our broken immigration system,” he said. “We will enforce our laws in a way that is humane, respects due process, and strengthens our nation and its economy.”
Several Senate Republicans opposed Mayorkas’ confirmation, questioning actions he took in his previous posts. Critics point to a 2015 DHS Inspector General report on allegations that Mayorkas was “exerting improper influence” in helping get visas approved for wealthy foreign investors. The report concluded that Mayorkas’ actions were legal and “legitimately within his purview” as deputy secretary.
“He does not deserve confirmation to lead Homeland Security,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said during a speech Tuesday on the Senate floor. “Frankly, his record should foreclose confirmation even to a lower post.”
Mayorkas takes over the department as Biden, who nominated him, has signed a raft of immigration-related executive orders in his first two weeks in office, reversing many of President Donald Trump’s policies, including ending construction of Trump’s signature wall on the border with Mexico and ordering a review of the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” policy, that forced migrants seeking asylum to wait in Mexico while waiting to plead their case before a judge. On Tuesday, the White House announced the formation of a task force to reunite the hundreds of families separated at the border under a Trump-era policy.
How Mayorkas tackles these tasks, as well as domestic terrorism and cyber-attack threats that fall under the purview of Homeland Security, will be closely watched in the weeks and months ahead. Those who know him say Mayorkas’s personal story and 30-plus-year career in law and government readied him for this moment.
“He’s a prosecutor, a law enforcement guy, but also someone who understands what sound immigration policy looks like,” said Ali Noorani, chief executive of the National Immigration Forum. “He represents the complexity of DHS in one human being.”
Mayorkas was born in Havana to a Jewish Cuban father and a Jewish mother whose family fled Nazi persecution in Romania. After Fidel Castro seized control of the island in 1959, the family fled, settling in Beverly Hills, California.
His family’s escape from persecution and new life in the United States left lasting impressions on a young Mayorkas.
“My father lost his livelihood and his business, was not able to be present at the burial of his mother, as we left Cuba after the Communist takeover of the country,” he said in a statement. “The United States provided my family and me a place of refuge. We were raised cherishing democracy, with a deep understanding of the perils of living otherwise.”
At Beverly Hills High, Mayorkas played on the tennis team and was in student government. He later attended the University of California at Berkeley and Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
While in college, Mayorkas got a job as a clerk at the law firm of Edward Rosenfeld, located down the road from his old high school. His tasks ranged from organizing rows of law books to tidying up the office. Mayorkas left a good enough impression that, after graduating law school, he returned to the firm and Rosenfeld gave him his first job as a lawyer.
“His work ethic was 110% on every job,” Rosenfeld said. “He always had a smile. He always had a positive outlook. Everyone liked him.” He added: “I could tell he was ambitious. He was a terrific young lawyer.”
Rosenfeld said he’s remained in touch with Mayorkas over the years. Whenever Mayorkas visits Southern California, the two often eat breakfast together or meet for lunch if Rosenfeld is in Washington. They talk about family and work. Mayorkas still calls him “Mr. Rosenfeld.”
“He’s a mensch,” said Rosenfeld, using the Yiddish term for someone with integrity and honor.
After a few years in private practice, Mayorkas was hired as an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, a sprawling, seven-county area that includes Los Angeles and 19 million people.
He quickly earned the reputation of being tough but low-key and amicable to everyone in the building. David Marcus, a fellow assistant U.S. attorney at the time, said Mayorkas would often walk down from his office on the 12th floor to the 11th floor to check in on the newer recruits, advising them on complex cases or offering support.
“Whether it’s a judge or a prosecutor or a janitor or a secretary, he remembers and knows everyone,” he said. “You can’t fake the amount of time he puts into getting to know people.”
Mayorkas also proved himself a tough prosecutor and gifted trial lawyer. One of his high-profile cases was that of Heidi Fleiss, the so-called “Hollywood Madam,” who ran a prostitution service for Hollywood producers, real estate moguls and actors. Fleiss was sentenced to 37 months in a federal prison on tax evasion charges but later praised Mayorkas’s fairness and sense of justice.
“He comes across as so personable and sweet – I think Ali should run for office,” Fleiss told Los Angeles Magazine in a 2000 profile of Mayorkas. “I shouldn’t say this, but I really like him – even though he was … begging the judge to give me 10 years.”
She added: “I would rather have had Ali as my lawyer … He would’ve gotten me off free and clear!”
His talent and work ethic got noticed and in 1999 then-President Bill Clinton appointed him to U.S. Attorney for the Central District, becoming the youngest U.S. attorney at the time, overseeing cases ranging from financial fraud to public corruption and international money laundering rings.
After leaving the Central District and a few years in the private sector, Mayorkas returned to public service as head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Here, he was instrumental in implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which offers deportation protections and work permits for young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, brought to the United States as children.
Mayorkas quickly impressed advocates as someone who understood the urgency of the policy and worked to make it real.
“He ensured that it was more than an announcement, more than a hope and a vision,” said Lorella Praeli, who at the time was director of policy and advocacy for United We Dream, an immigrant advocacy group. “He wanted to see it through.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees at the time complained that Mayorkas had ordered staff to fast-track applications for EB-5 visas to wealthy investors connected to prominent Democrats, such as former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, leading to the 2015 DHS Inspector General report.
Mayorkas argued that he was trying to streamline a badly broken visa system he had inherited and had also intervened on behalf of prominent Republicans. While he disagreed with the report, he said at the time that he “will certainly learn from it and from this process.”
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who then chaired the Homeland Security Committee, helped Mayorkas win his confirmation to be deputy secretary of DHS over the objections of several Republicans and later traveled with Mayorkas to Central American countries, such as Guatemala, to oversee the rollout of Alliance for Prosperity, a plan to assist struggling countries and stem the flow of migration from the region to the U.S.
Carper said he was impressed by the deputy secretary’s grasp of the issues and his restless work ethic.
“I don’t know when he sleeps,” Carper said. “He is one hard worker.”
Mayorkas also led DHS’s response to Ebola and Zika outbreaks, stood up campaigns to combat human trafficking and developed an emergency relief program for orphaned youth in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti.
Veitch, the DHS staffer, said she was struck by how Mayorkas insisted employees address him by his nickname, “Ali,” rather than “deputy secretary” — a departure from other high-ranking department officials. In meetings, even contentious ones, he would listen intently to everyone’s side and get personally invested in issues.
Near the end of his term as DHS deputy secretary, Mayorkas took a work trip to Cuba with other officials as part of Obama’s efforts to restore diplomatic relationships between the two Cold War foes.
In Havana, Mayorkas visited his family’s tomb at a Jewish cemetery, met with Cuban officials and soaked in the sights and sounds of his birth country. One night after dinner, Gil Kerlikowske, then-commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection who was traveling with Mayorkas, received a phone call in his hotel room. It was Mayorkas: Get ready, he told him, they were going for a ride.
The two climbed into their SUVs outside and were driven to the Malecon, Havana’s famed seaside promenade. Once there, they got out and, trailed by Secret Service agents, they strolled along the breezy walkway and chatted with locals who were sitting on the ledge and sipping rum. Soon, a small crowd had formed around them: Cubans, Canadiens, workers, students, all curious of the newcomers.
Mayorkas talked with all of them, trying to get a feel for his birth island and the issues that mattered most to locals, Kerlikowske said.
“It was a magical evening,” he said. “People just felt comfortable around him. They just wanted to talk to him.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.