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On March 28, 2023, after a little over two years as the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas made his second appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee and received an onslaught of attacks by enraged GOP senators. “Secretary, I honest to God do like you,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the committee, said. “I think you are a very good man.” But on his watch, Graham claimed, drug cartels were so out of control, they now represented the “largest attack on America’s homeland by a foreign power.” The fentanyl overdose crisis? Mayorkas and the Biden administration’s fault—despite ample evidence that most of the synthetic opioid enters the country via US citizens through legal ports of entry. Sex trafficking? Ditto. “Do you understand you have a credibility problem with Congress and with the American people?” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) charged. “I have unflinching confidence in the integrity of my conduct,” Mayorkas calmly replied.

The angrier the Republicans became, the more composed Mayorkas appeared, apparently inviting even more hostility. Two hours into the hearing, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) complained, “You have exhausted me, you have exhausted this panel, and you have exhausted the patience of the American people.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the secretary’s harshest critics, who once called him the “largest human trafficker on the face of the Earth,” repeatedly tried to have Mayorkas refer to the situation at the southern border as a “crisis.” Instead, Mayorkas acknowledged it was a “significant challenge.”

“This red line is you!” Cruz said, pointing to a placard showing a spike in migrant arrivals since 2020. He then suggested, without evidence, that murderers, rapists, and child molesters were being let into the country and committing heinous crimes. “Your behavior is disgraceful,” he said, “and the deaths, the children assaulted, the children raped, they are at your feet and if you had integrity, you would resign…You’re willing to let children be raped to follow political orders.”

“What the senator said was revolting,” Mayorkas said. “I’m not going to address it.”

“Your refusal to do your job is revolting,”  Cruz shot back.

For almost four hours, GOP senators relentlessly pinned a variety of social ills—crime, drugs, child abuse—on the secretary while their Democratic counterparts pressed him on other aspects of his portfolio, such as how to counter cybersecurity threats and antisemitism. Through it all, the first Latino and immigrant to lead DHS attempted to respond, dodge, and correct the record. His voice remained steady and his self-control never wavered. In his opening remarks, committee chair Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) observed, “I think you have one of the most difficult jobs in the administration.”

More than any other of President Biden’s secretaries, Mayorkas has become a convenient lightning rod for Republican lawmakers’ free-floating attacks on the administration generally and immigration policy in particular. He’s been berated  for deliberately enabling “open borders” and being lenient in the face of what they describe as an “invasion.” Some have compared him to traitorous Benedict Arnold, and others have advocated for his arrest. Last September, anticipating Republicans regaining control of Congress, future House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) said, “We will give Secretary [Alejandro] Mayorkas a reserved parking spot [at the Capitol], he will be testifying so much.” 

Since their midterm House victory, Republicans have organized a deluge of congressional hearings and field trips focused on the border. Crucially, they have threatened to launch impeachment proceedings against Mayorkas, which would be the first since 1876, when the House impeached Secretary of War William Belknap. (He was acquitted after the votes in the Senate fell short of a two-thirds majority to convict.) “They will not force me out,” Mayorkas told CNN’s Chris Wallace in February.

Mayorkas concedes that the US immigration system is “fundamentally broken” and in need of an overhaul. Decades of prevention through deterrence—and costly, deadly militarization—haven’t translated into sustainable border management. There’s been no congressional action toward reforming a legal framework left untouched since the 1990s, much less creating legalization pathways for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The stalemate has frustrated both hardline immigration restriction proponents and immigrant rights groups.

As the public face of DHS, Mayorkas, 63, is often the target of those grievances, even if he lacks the authority to set the nation’s immigration agenda. “I think some in the administration feel that this [border] issue is not good for them politically,” says Vanessa Cardenas, executive director of America’s Voice who served as national coalitions director for the Biden campaign. “That is a tension that [Mayorkas] has to navigate—and it is not a good place to be.” 

He has also inherited a vast and demoralized bureaucracy—the third largest cabinet department formed from 22 different entities post-9/11 to strengthen national security—that was only worsened by the Trump administration’s policies, especially one known as Title 42. First implemented in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, but carried on by the Biden administration, it relied on an obscure public health authority to summarily turn away migrants, including asylum seekers.

Immigrant rights groups and public health experts have long condemned Title 42—which expired on May 11—as cruel and ineffective, placing asylum seekers in harm’s way and violating their right to seek protection under international and US laws, while doing little to curb migration. But Republicans and even some Democrats latched onto the order as a kind of stopgap to secure the border, even if it was never intended to be an immigration tool. Without Title 42, GOP-led states that sued to keep it in place have argued “a crisis of unprecedented proportions” was all but inevitable. 

Even President Biden, under increased political pressure and having recently announced his reelection bid, projected the situation would “be chaotic for a while.” He’s shifted towards more stringent measures that echo Trump-era policies, restricting asylum eligibility for migrants who travel through other countries on their way to the United States and ramping up swift deportations. Immigrant rights groups and Democrats claim the president is reneging on his campaign commitments to restore safety, order, and humanity to an outdated asylum program that had been run into the ground by his predecessor. They fear the new policies will effectively shut the door on asylum seekers and fundamentally shift the paradigm at the border in ways that further normalize the exclusion of those seeking refuge and betray the country’s humanitarian obligations. 

As the policy’s expiration deadline loomed, DHS asked the Defense Department to temporarily deploy an additional 1,500 active-duty troops to the southern border to offer administrative support. “Our border is not open,” Mayorkas repeatedly warned in a marathon of TV appearances and press conferences, explaining that individuals crossing unlawfully would be formally removed and risk a five-year ban from the United States, as well as potential criminal prosecution if they attempt to re-enter. Meanwhile, thousands of migrants facing uncertainty waited in Mexican border towns and lines started forming near ports of entry. “This is a challenge and we are going to meet this challenge,” the secretary said on May 11. “We’re going to meet it within a broken immigration system while adhering to our values.”

The anticipated chaos never fully materialized. While border encounters reached as many as 10,000 a day before May 11, the number of daily apprehensions has since gone down to 6,300 and then to 4,200, although Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities remain over capacity. Asylum, the American Immigration Council stated in a recent report, “must not be sacrificed on the altar of ‘bringing numbers down.'” 

Mayorkas is still searching for the middle ground, even if at times it looks as if he just can’t win. “We are a nation of immigrants,” he has said. “We are also a nation of laws.” This high-wire act reflects the fundamental immigration conundrum: Can humanitarian policies coexist with tough enforcement of laws? And will Alejandro Mayorkas survive to finish the job, or will he be defeated by Republican lawmakers eager to punish him?

By nearly every measure, Mayorkas, who goes by Ali, seemed the perfect man for this role both for personal and professional reasons. He told Wallace, “My parents instilled in me the profound meaning of displacement, the yearning to give one’s children a better life than the life one has had.”  He was born to Jewish parents the same year Fidel Castro took power in Cuba. During the rise of fascism in Europe, his mother Anita left her native Romania with a few relatives, emigrated to southern France, and finally settled on the island. His Cuban-born father, Charles R. “Nicky” Mayorkas, studied at a bilingual American school in Havana and later ran a steel-wool factory. In August 1960, when Ali was still an infant and his sister Cathy was three, the family flew to Miami and became political refugees to escape what Mayorkas would later describe as “the community takeover.” “I understand deeply the plight of individuals who leave their homes, ” he continued on CNN, “whether they flee persecution or aspire to a better life.”

The family settled in Southern California, moving into a modest, Spanish-style house with a red-tile roof in a middle-class southeast Beverly Hills neighborhood described to me by Mayorkas’ childhood friends and neighbors as the “slums of Beverly Hills,” with one of the best school districts in the country at the time. His mother became a teacher and his father worked at a textile business. They were “quiet, calm, and strong” and very appreciative of America, a friend and former classmate Frank Rhodes told me. Mayorkas looked up to his older sister and was protective of his younger brothers, James and Anthony. 

“As the children of immigrants,” Jonathan Band, another childhood friend and now an intellectual property lawyer in Washington, DC, says, “we didn’t believe we were entitled to anything; at the same time, we were convinced that nothing could be denied us if we worked hard enough for it.” Mayorkas was not tall, Band adds, which meant he had to “out-hustle” others to be competitive in football or basketball—which he was.

His Beverly Hills High School yearbook shows he joined student government and the science fiction and French clubs. Being captain of the tennis team was an accomplishment, making him “royalty,” according to the New Republic’s Timothy Noah, who also attended the school. Rocky Lang, Mayorkas’ friend and fellow tennis co-captain, remembers Mayorkas as studious and serious, but fun in an understated way. “He wasn’t like the life of the party,” Lang says, “but he had a great personality and sense of humor.” In describing a temperament that served him well in his years of public service, Lang says, “He never was a complainer or offered excuses,” instead, just dealing “with what was in front of him”—and then moving on.

In 1981, Mayorkas received a bachelor’s degree with distinction in history from the University of California, Berkeley. Gregory Goonan, a fellow Loyola Law School 1985 graduate, portrayed him to me as “well-liked and highly respected,” and a problem solver. For the next 38 years, Mayorkas would spend some time in private practice but most of his career in government. In 1989, after a stint at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler in New York City, he returned to Los Angeles and served for nine years as assistant US attorney for the Central District of California—one of the largest federal judicial districts in the country where many high-profile cases land. He spearheaded the general crimes section for three of those years and prosecuted white-collar crimes and multi-million-dollar drug money laundering operations.

These were routine in comparison to the tax evasion and money laundering case against Heidi Fleiss, the “Hollywood Madam,” who ran a high-end prostitution ring catering to the rich and famous. Her 1994 conviction on state charges of pandering was later overturned on the grounds of juror misconduct, but Mayorkas’ federal case was successful and she was sentenced to 37 months in prison. In 2000, Fleiss told Los Angeles magazine for a Mayorkas profile that he came across as “personable and sweet” and suggested he should run for office “even though he was the little fucker who was begging the judge to give me 10 years.” Had Mayorkas been her lawyer, Fleiss said, “He would’ve gotten me off free and clear!”

Typically, a federal prosecutor would spend a few years in the office and move on to practice at big law firms before returning as a US attorney. But in 1998, President Bill Clinton appointed Mayorkas to become, at 39, the youngest US attorney in the country, outstripping other seasoned lawyers, including his own boss—then-Chief Assistant US Attorney Richard E. Drooyan—for the coveted position. As one person familiar with the promotion told me, Mayorkas “was astute enough politically at the time that he was able to wrangle himself into the job.” Drooyan and others left the office not long after. (In an email, Drooyan said, “It was time for me to move back to private practice.”)

Mayorkas led 245 assistant US attorneys and created the Civil Rights Section to prosecute hate crimes and abuse by the police. In the Los Angeles magazine profile, acquaintances described Mayorkas as a “good, honest man in a job not always suited for the type,” as well as a leader “who wasn’t afraid to stick the knife into someone.” Even many public defenders saw him as a straight shooter with a sense of justice and fairness. 

US Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas announces arrests in major Mexico and LA-based heroin processing and distribution ring.

Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty

His tenure wasn’t without controversy. In 2001, Mayorkas called the Clinton White House about Carlos Vignali Jr., a convicted drug dealer who successfully sought a commutation of a 15-year sentence. Vignali’s father, a wealthy entrepreneur and Democratic donor, had garnered support from influential Southern California officials, lawmakers, and faith leaders on behalf of his son over opposition from the Department of Justice. (He also paid Hillary Clinton’s brother Hugh Rodham about $200,000 for his role in securing the pardon.) A GOP-led House investigation into Clinton’s clemency practices later concluded the commutation had sent a message of a “double standard of justice between the rich and the poor.” Mayorkas’ involvement was inappropriate, the report stated, and the White House had cited his support, among others, as “instrumental” to the president’s decision. Mayorkas, known for always striving to “do the right thing,” admitted to having made a mistake. “I allowed my compassion for the parents to interfere with my judgment,” he wrote to his staff at the time.

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, Mayorkas stepped down to join the prestigious Los Angeles law firm of O’Melveny & Myers as a partner. David Lash, who manages the firm’s pro bono and public interest services, says Mayorkas advocated for expanding their pro bono program, believing that “lawyers and the law have a vital role to play in protecting the underserved and the underrepresented.” At the dawn of the Obama administration, Mayorkas, who Lash calls a “singularly devoted” husband to his wife Tanya and father to two teenage girls, was ready to return to public service, this time focusing on immigration. He served on the presidential transition team for the Department of Justice’s criminal division and in 2009 was nominated to lead US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the branch of DHS in charge of legal immigration. In the first few months, he made a point of getting to know the staff and insisted on being called Ali.

His greatest accomplishment was the implementation of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that shields young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children—the “Dreamers”—from deportation. It earned him the moniker of “father of DACA,” according to a 2021 profile in the Washington Post. Rolling out the program “from whole cloth,” Janet Napolitano, then-secretary of Homeland Security, told me, was no small task, let alone in a mere 60 days, and she gives “Ali a lot of credit” for its successful implementation.

After four years, Obama selected Mayorkas as the department’s deputy secretary, a chief operating officer-like role. Overshadowing his nomination was an investigation into his alleged undue interference as director of USCIS in a visa program on behalf of a few wealthy foreign investors who were involved in projects with ties to prominent Democrats, including then-Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). An inspector general inquiry prompted by whistleblower complaints found that Mayorkas hadn’t committed any unlawful conduct, but his actions had “created an appearance of favoritism and special access.” He was confirmed without a single Republican vote.

In 2015, Mayorkas traveled to Cuba—“with a nervous heart,” he told the Washington Post—as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to reestablish diplomatic relations between the two countries. It was his first time back, more than 50 years since he had left. Mayorkas had always imagined returning to the island with his father, but Nicky Mayorkas passed away in 2012. He visited the cemetery where his grandmother is buried and received his family’s immigration papers as a gift from Cuban government officials. Gil Kerlikowske, a former Obama drug czar and CBP commissioner who was on the trip recalls “a magical moment” one warm, pleasant evening, when Mayorkas urged them to get out of the SUV and walk along Havana’s Malecón seawall. For about an hour, they talked to local young people about their views of Cuba and the United States. “People just felt comfortable around him,” Kerlikowske told USA Today in 2021. “They just wanted to talk to him.”

In November 2020, President Biden chose Mayorkas to serve as DHS secretary and right a ship that had lacked steady leadership for a long time. He had spent the Trump years in private practice at WilmerHale, where he earned more than $3 million as a partner, providing crisis management legal counseling related to T-Mobile, Cisco Systems, Airbnb, and Uber.

His appointment, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, wrote in an op-ed at the time, signaled “the dawn of a new era of possibilities.” Ali Noorani, then-president of the National Immigration Forum told the USA Today, Mayorkas “represents the complexity of DHS in one human being.” In the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, four former Homeland Security secretaries endorsed him and publicly urged the Senate to proceed with the confirmation. Mayorkas, they said, “needs no on-the-job training and will be prepared to lead DHS on Day 1.”

“He was a logical choice to be secretary,” Cecilia Muñoz, a domestic policy adviser for the Obama administration who worked on the Biden transition team, says. “But it is an impossible role,” which she described as “one of the most thankless jobs in government…You are getting hit from the left because you can’t apply a set of humanitarian principles that are no longer possible for a variety of reasons, and you are getting hit from the right because they love making political hay with the fact that it’s so messy.” In my interviews, I repeatedly heard versions of something Rhodes, the old classmate, had said: “You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job.” 

First, Mayorkas had to clean up some of the wreckage from the previous four years of Trump’s crackdown on immigration. He started by restructuring the Homeland Security Independent Advisory Council by appointing 33 new members from civil society, past Republican and Democratic administration cabinet secretaries, and leaders of law enforcement organizations and corporations. His former mentor Robert C. Bonner, who left the US Attorney’s office to serve on the federal bench in 1989 and later held the title of first commissioner of CBP in the early 2000s, was fired, as were some Trump allies.

Early on, the Biden administration revoked a travel ban on people from Muslim-majority countries, halted the construction of the border wall, and rescinded a rule that punished immigrants for using public benefits. In keeping with a campaign day-one pledge, DHS quickly moved to roll back the “Remain in Mexico” program, which forced migrants to wait for their US court hearings in dangerous border town encampments, and formed a task force that has since reunited more than 600 children separated at the border with their family members. (As deputy secretary in 2015, Mayorkas rejected a proposal floated around by ICE official Tom Homan to use family separation to manage the border.) “There was a lot of hope,” Cardenas says. “That’s why it’s so disappointing to now see some of the steps that have been taken.”

As secretary, Napolitano says, “Your successes typically don’t make the press, but your failures do.” Just a few months into Biden’s term, border patrol stations started filling up with a record number of unaccompanied minors, pushing the government to convert military facilities and convention centers into emergency temporary holding sites. In some cases, children remained in the custody of CBP and in overcrowded conditions for longer than the mandated maximum of 72 hours before being transferred to shelters administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. 

During that time, officials were on conference calls every day, analyzing the numbers and consulting with a chief medical officer about the care provided to the migrant children. Mayorkas’ former senior immigration counselor Angela Kelley says, “It was about these are kids, these are minors and he’s a father of two daughters.” Mayorkas went to the border and flexed the muscles of the department, borrowing resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “He had been on the job for like 10 minutes,” she says, “and he quickly was able to decompress and move the children into a better situation.” 

But the momentum was difficult to sustain and Republicans immediately seized on a “crisis” at the border. A former White House official who asked to speak on background to discuss issues candidly said after those initial months the president’s vision “started to slowly dissipate to the realities of the logistics and the challenges of the politics around those logistics.” 

Crises abroad provided golden opportunities for the GOP to attack Mayorkas. On July 7, 2021, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse engulfed Haiti in political turmoil and escalating violence. Thousands of Haitian migrants, many of whom had relocated to Chile and Brazil after a 2010 earthquake ravaged the country and had since had their livelihoods devastated by the pandemic, started heading north. At some point, as many as 15,000 migrants converged on a camp under an international bridge in Del Rio, Texas.

The White House began to try to dissuade asylum seekers from making the trip. On the ground, border patrol agents on horseback chasing migrants on the banks of the Rio Grande sparked outrage. “I was horrified by what I saw,” Mayorkas said on CNN. “That defies all of the values that we seek to instill in our people.” (An internal investigation identified the “unnecessary use of force,” but found no evidence of agents whipping migrants as had been initially reported.) In the following months, DHS used Title 42 to deport thousands of Haitians, prompting advocates to call for humanitarian relief and sparking comparisons with a streamlined process that has allowed more than 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion into the country.  Meanwhile, Cubans faced with unrest and worsening economic conditions attempted to cross the Florida Straits on makeshift boats. Mayorkas stayed on message. “Allow me to be clear: if you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States,” he said in a statement warning about the perils of the journey. “People will die.” (This April, DHS resumed deportation flights to Cuba for the first time since 2020.) “We should not minimize the humanitarian conditions for which, frankly, you’re responsible,” Sen. Hawley told Mayorkas in September 2021 during a Senate committee hearing. 

In 2022, the number of border encounters reached a record high of more than 2 million and about 1 million expulsions under Title 42. Mayorkas faced increasing pressure from within his own department, which has 260,000 employees and consistently ranks at the bottom of a list of federal agencies for staff morale. Border patrol agents have complained about being “babysitters,” processing paperwork and transporting arriving migrants, instead of tackling drug trafficking and human smuggling. Some have considered early retirement. 

During a visit to the Yuma border sector in Arizona early last year, the Secretary acknowledged the strain on the workforce and conceded that the Biden administration’s policies are unpopular with CBP, the country’s largest law enforcement agency with a budget of $15.3 billion. As if to underscore the resentment, one of the border patrol agents turned his back on Mayorkas. “You can turn your back on me,” Mayorkas reportedly said, “but I’ll never turn my back on you.”

The National Border Patrol Council, which represents about 18,000 agents and previously endorsed Trump, has pushed for the Secretary’s impeachment, a call that has been echoed by right-wing groups like the Heritage Foundation. “It will be a happy day when Mayorkas leaves DHS and an adult takes over,” they tweeted last year. When asked about the union’s opposition at NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mayorkas said only that his focus is on the mission. 

Ron Vitiello, a former Border Patrol chief and acting director of ICE under Trump, accepts “that the rhetoric around immigration policy was changing and becoming less volatile” than during the Trump years when he served at DHS. But he doesn’t understand how “the only Secretary who walked in that door of the Secretary General’s office knowing full well how the southwest border and immigration works” chose to “blow up what was working.” The Biden administration, he says, is creating “misery by another method with the policies they’ve ignored or taken down.”

The week after Republicans narrowly regained control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, soon-to-be Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy brought a group of lawmakers to the US-Mexico border. They toured the El Paso sector in Texas chaperoned by border patrol agents. From across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez, a group of migrants waved and begged to be let into the United States. “If Secretary Mayorkas does not resign,” McCarthy said at a press conference against the backdrop of the surrounding rugged terrain. “House Republicans will investigate every order, every action, and every failure to determine whether we can begin an impeachment inquiry.” He vowed to “use the power of the purse and the power of subpoena” against those responsible for the border “disaster.”

In November, CBP officers counted almost 175,000 encounters at the southern border—in part as a result of Title 42 forcing expelled migrants to attempt multiple crossings. With the impending termination of Title 42, McCarthy said during his border visit, “We are bracing for a tsunami.” The country, he continued, “may never recover from Secretary Mayorkas’ dereliction of duty.” That December, the number peaked at more than 250,000. 

In early January, the Biden administration announced a series of carrot-and-stick border enforcement measures ahead of Title 42 being lifted. The government would allow up to 30,000 citizens from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela into the country every month—for a period of two years under a process known as parole—while Mexico agreed to take as many as 30,000 migrants from those four nations on a monthly basis. Shortly after the implementation, DHS reported a 97 percent decrease in border crossings between ports of entry by migrants from the four impacted nationalities; a seven-day average of 115 daily encounters compared to 3,367 in December. By February, the number of CBP encounters had plummeted to a two-year low for the second consecutive month.

The administration has since added a proposed rule that makes it significantly harder for asylum seekers to qualify for protection if they weren’t approved for travel through the parole program, or if they hadn’t first sought and been denied humanitarian relief in other countries, or if they didn’t use a smartphone application called CBP One to schedule an appointment at a port of entry to pursue “lawful pathways.” Critics argue the parole program’s cap and requirement for a US financial sponsor excluded those most in need.

Plus, the CBP One app hasn’t worked well, with reports of difficulties in capturing photographs of people with darker skin tones and appointment slots filling up in a matter of minutes. Even some Democrats grew impatient with Mayorkas’ handling of the situation, with 35 House members demanding action from DHS to fix the app. “While technology can be helpful to facilitate processing,” they wrote, “it should never be used to create a tiered system that treats groups differently according to economic status, gender identity, age, language, nationality, or race.” At least one migrant has died while waiting in vain for a date. “It’s like Ticketmaster but for asylum seekers,” Erika Pinheiro, executive director of the legal services organization Al Otro Lado, told the San Diego Union-Tribune

The new rule provides for some exemptions for unaccompanied minors or cases of an “imminent and extreme threat to life or safety” and “acute medical emergency.” But its resemblance to the transit ban first implemented by the Trump administration and blocked by courts for violating asylum laws was noted in many of the more than 50,000 public comments regarding the proposed regulation, which was finalized on May 10. “Don’t try to fight the Republican scaremongering about the ‘border crisis’ by imitating Trump,” one said.

A local labor union representing 14,000 USCIS workers, including asylum officers, is among the opponents, calling the rule “draconian.” As the agents at the forefront of carrying out the policy, says Michael Knowles, the spokesperson for the AFGE National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council 119 union, asylum officers would be forced to violate their oath and be “complicit in unlawful actions that place other human beings in harm’s way.” Knowles once called Mayorkas a “champion for the workforce” and says the union still regards him as such. Now, he hopes the secretary will listen and retreat from policies that outsource the country’s humanitarian responsibilities and evoke the time when the country turned its back on Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. “If I were to talk to him today,” he tells me, “I’d say, Ali, remember, the [ocean liner] St. Louis. Not on your watch.”

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) speaks during a news conference in front of the US Capitol.

Alex Wong/Getty

Andrea Flores, one of many disillusioned White House officials working on immigration issues to have debarked the Biden administration in the last two years, tweeted her frustration: “Rather than make progress on addressing regional mass migration,” she wrote, “the Biden Administration has resurrected a transit ban that normalizes the white nationalist belief that asylum seekers from certain countries are less deserving of humanitarian protections.” 

Secretary Mayorkas and other DHS officials reject comparisons to Trump-era policies, defending their approach as one centered on encouraging orderly migration. In late April, DHS and the State Department announced plans to partner with international organizations to operate processing centers in countries such as Colombia and Guatemala so that migrants can be screened for refugee admission and other potential legal pathways, including to Canada and Spain, without coming to the US-Mexico border. “This is not an asylum ban,” Mayorkas said on ABC News. “We have a humanitarian obligation as well as a matter of security. It is not a ban at all.” But the administration’s fragile effort relies heavily on measures already being challenged in court by both sides. “We are operating at the limits of our executive authority and pushing the statutes in ways we believe are legal,” a DHS official told me. The department, he added, is “prepared to defend the legality of what we are doing to the Supreme Court if necessary.” 

Doris Meissner, who served as commissioner of the now-defunct US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) under Clinton, says the policies represent a real shift from Biden’s first two years in office, but not for the worse. In the face of the years-long asylum cases backlog in immigration courts—which fall under the Department of Justice—coupled with the changing patterns in global migration, the administration is adopting a long-term strategy based on “incentives and disincentives” to try and make the system work effectively. “That’s not going to happen in three months,” she says.  

“We can recognize that border politics and partisan stunts have become the new normal and that there are [also] very complex challenges DHS continues to struggle with even two years into this administration,” Vignarajah says. “But criticism on all sides doesn’t necessarily mean they are doing something right…At the end of the day, people’s lives are more important than polling numbers.”

House Republicans often argue Mayorkas has failed to maintain “operational control” of the border, a standard no administration has ever managed to achieve. “This is political theater,” Meissner says. “And it’s dangerous and reckless and it is going to continue into the next election cycle.” 

The GOP calls for impeachment are unlikely to succeed in the Democrat-controlled Senate, but that hasn’t stopped them from staging hearings to display policy disagreements that increasingly resemble performative show trials. “On April 19, next week, get the popcorn,” Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) reportedly told a room full of donors last month, hinting at a five-phase plan to impeach the Secretary. “Alejandro Mayorkas comes before our committee, and it’s going to be fun.” He added, “That’ll really be just the beginning for him.” During the hearing, MAGA Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who recently introduced articles of impeachment to remove Mayorkas, called the Secretary “a liar” and had to be silenced. The committee’s Ranking Member Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said, Republicans “want a political wedge issue and something to talk to their deep-pocketed donors about more than they want to work together to get things done. It’s Washington at its worst.” 

In May, House Majority Whip Tom Emmer from Minnesota joined the growing chorus from the Freedom Caucus, saying Mayorkas should resign or “absolutely should be impeached.” When asked if he agreed, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) told Breitbart, “Impeachment is the nicest thing I can say about that son of a bitch right now.” A source familiar with the House GOP leadership discussions said on CNN, “It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.” If Washington, DC, “were an aughts-era sitcom,” Bill Scher writes in the Washington Monthly, it would be called “Everybody Hates Alejandro.”

At the DHS headquarters in southeast DC, black and white portraits of Mayorkas’ parents in Cuba are displayed behind his desk. The office also features a photograph capturing the moment a Haitian boy who had been orphaned by the devastating 2010 earthquake and received humanitarian parole raced to meet his new adoptive family in Miami. It reminds Mayorkas of resilience and the “beautiful things” the department’s workers can witness. 

“I am focused on the work in front of us, meeting the challenge not only with respect to the Southern border,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash when asked if he was worried about impeachment proceedings. “I am focused on the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events. I am focused on adverse actions of the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Iran, Russia. I am focused on the work of the Department of Homeland Security. I will continue to focus on that work throughout my tenure.”  


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