Alejandro Nicholas Mayorkas (born November 24, 1959) is an American lawyer and government official serving as the seventh United States Secretary of Homeland Security. During the Obama administration, he served in the Department of Homeland Security, first as Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (2009–2013) and then as Deputy Secretary (2013–2016).

Born in Havana, Cuba, his family fled shortly after the Cuban Revolution to Florida and later settled in California. After law school, Mayorkas worked as an Assistant United States Attorney and was appointed the United States attorney for the
Central District of California in Los Angeles during the administration of President Bill Clinton.

In 2016, Mayorkas became a partner at the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, in their Washington, D.C. office. President Joe Biden nominated Mayorkas as Secretary of Homeland Security in his Cabinet. On February 2, 2021, Mayorkas was confirmed by the Senate on a 56–43 vote, with bipartisan support but significant Senate Republican opposition. He is the first immigrant and first Latino to lead the department.

Early life and education

Alejandro Nicholas Mayorkas, nicknamed Ali, was born in Havana, Cuba, on November 24, 1959. His parents arrived with him and his sister to the United States in 1960 as refugees, following the Cuban Revolution. He lived in Miami, Florida, before his family moved to Los Angeles, California, where he was raised for the remainder of his youth. Mayorkas grew up in Beverly Hills and attended Beverly Hills High School.

His father, Charles R. “Nicky” Mayorkas, was a Cuban Jew of Turkish Sephardic and Polish Ashkenazi background, who owned and operated a steel wool factory in Havana. His mother, Anita (Gabor), was a Romanian Jew whose family escaped the Holocaust and fled to Cuba in the 1940s. The Cuban Revolution marked the second time his mother would be forced to flee a country she considered home.

Mayorkas earned his Bachelor of Arts degree with distinction from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981. He received his Juris Doctor from Loyola Law School in 1985.

Career

Assistant United States Attorney

After three years as a litigation associate in private practice, Mayorkas became an Assistant United States Attorney in the Central District of California in 1989. He prosecuted a wide array of federal crimes, developing a specialization in the prosecution of white-collar crime. His prosecutions included the successful prosecution of Operation PolarCap, then the largest money laundering case in the nation; the conviction at trial of Heidi Fleiss on charges of federal conspiracy, tax fraud, and money laundering charges; the successful prosecutions of two largest telemarketing fraud operations that preyed on the elderly; and the successful prosecution of a health care fraud and insurance fraud conspiracy.

Mayorkas served as the coordinator of the Southern California Telemarketing Fraud Task Force, overseeing the coordination of federal, state, and local law enforcement and regulatory agencies to most aggressively combat telemarketing fraud throughout the Central District of California.

From 1996 to 1998, Mayorkas served as Chief of the Office’s General Crimes Section, overseeing the training and trial work of all new Assistant United States Attorneys in the Criminal Division. He received numerous awards from federal law enforcement agencies, including from FBI Director Louis Freeh for the successful prosecution of Operation PolarCap.

United States Attorney

In 1998, Mayorkas was recommended by Senator Dianne Feinstein and appointed by President Bill Clinton as the United States Attorney for the Central District of California, becoming the country’s youngest United States Attorney. He was appointed on December 21, 1998.

Mayorkas oversaw the prosecution of high-profile criminal cases, including the prosecution of the Mexican Mafia in death penalty proceedings, the prosecution of Buford O. Furrow, Jr. for the murder of a federal postal worker and the hate-motivated shooting of children in a community center, the prosecution of Litton Industries for the payment of bribes abroad, and the takedown of the violent 18th Street gang using RICO statutes.

In late 2000, Mayorkas was one of many California officials who participated in efforts to obtain executive clemency for narcotics trafficker Carlos Vignali, Jr., the son of a wealthy Los Angeles businessman. On his last day in office in January 2001, Clinton commuted Vignali’s 15-year prison sentence, a controversial decision.

Private law practice

In September 2001, Mayorkas joined O’Melveny & Myers as a litigation partner. In 2008, The National Law Journal named Mayorkas one of the “50 Most Influential Minority Lawyers in America”.

Upon the election of Barack Obama in November 2008, Mayorkas was selected by the president-elect for a role in the presidential transition leading up to the inauguration. He led the transition team responsible for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division.

Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

In 2009, Mayorkas was appointed by President Obama as the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). On May 20, 2009, the nomination was received by the Senate; on August 7, 2009, the nomination was confirmed by the Senate by voice vote. As USCIS director, Mayorkas led United States citizenship through management efficiencies and fiscal responsibility, and safeguarding the integrity of the immigration system. He implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) process in 60 days. He led U.S. government efforts to rescue orphaned children following the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti and led the advancement of a crime victims unit that, for the first time, resulted in the ability of the agency to administer the statutory maximum number of visas to victims of crime.

For his work as director of USCIS, Mayorkas received awards from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In 2015, a Department of Homeland Security inspector general (DHS IG) report criticized Mayorkas’ oversight of the EB-5 investor visa program, which offered lawful permanent resident status (green cards) to foreign investors who invested $500,000 into businesses that created jobs in the U.S. The program’s popularity greatly increased under Mayorkas’s tenure. The DHS IG report, which was the culmination of an investigation beginning in 2013, focused on allegations that politically connected businesses were given special treatment under the program, focusing specifically on the Sahara casino and hotel in Las Vegas, backed by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and an electric car company led by Terry McAuliffe and involving Anthony Rodham. The report concluded that “The juxtaposition of Mr. Mayorkas’ communication with external stakeholders on specific matters outside the normal procedures, coupled with favorable action that deviated from the regulatory scheme designed to ensure fairness and evenhandedness in adjudicating benefits, created an appearance of favoritism and special access.” The “fast-tracking” of approvals for individuals involved in the casino program was controversial because it was made over the objections of USCIS analysts “who were suspicious about the source of the funds”.

Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security

Nominated by President Obama in June 2013, Mayorkas was confirmed as the Deputy Secretary on December 20, 2014, following a party-line Senate vote.

The DHS inspector general’s investigation into Mayorkas’s intervention as USCIS director to expedite reviews for applicants for foreign investor visas in three cases caused controversy and delayed his confirmation proceedings. The inspector general’s report found that Mayorkas’s acts did not violate the law, but did create an appearance of favoritism. In House Homeland Security Committee testimony in May 2015, Mayorkas expressed regret that his intervention created an impression of favoritism, but said his involvement was motivated by a desire to ensure that the applications were handled in accordance with the law: “I did not let errors go unchecked, but instead helped ensure that those cases were decided correctly, nothing more and nothing less.”

As deputy secretary, Mayorkas’s led DHS’s response to the 2013–14 Ebola virus epidemic and 2015–16 Zika virus epidemic. His work also focused on cybersecurity. He led the DHS’s negotiations with Israel and China on cybersecurity. A landmark agreement reached in 2015 with the Chinese government reduced, for a brief period, Chinese cyberattacks against American companies aimed at the theft of intellectual property. After the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, Mayorkas led the Obama administration’s delegation to Cuba, and negotiated with the Cuban government on port and cargo security and U.S.-Cuba travel.

Mayorkas was also involved in the Department’s counterterrorism and anti-cybercrime efforts, as well as its public-private partnerships, and efforts to fight antisemitism. Under Mayorkas’s tenure, DHS greatly expanded its Cyber Crimes Center in Fairfax, Virginia, to aid the department’s efforts to combat various cybercrimes, ranging from child exploitation to computer hacking and intellectual property theft. Mayorkas was involved in efforts to address DHS’s presence on GAO’s “high risk list” for management challenges; Mayorkas, as well as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, acknowledged low morale among DHS employees (a longstanding problem that pre-dated the Obama administration) and took steps aimed at boosting morale.

Return to private practice, 2017–2020

In October 2016, Mayorkas joined the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in the firm’s Washington office.

Secretary of Homeland Security

Alejandro Mayorkas

Mayorkas sworn in as Secretary of Homeland Security on February 2, 2021

Nomination and confirmation hearings

On November 23, 2020, President-elect Joe Biden announced his plan to nominate Mayorkas to be Secretary of Homeland Security.
Mayorkas has the support the Fraternal Order of Police and endorsements from former secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff (who served under George W. Bush) and Janet Napolitano and Jeh Johnson (who served under Barack Obama), who said Biden “could not have found a more qualified person”.

On January 19, 2021, Senator Josh Hawley moved to block the swift confirmation of Mayorkas as the Secretary of Homeland Security, stating that Mayorkas “has not adequately explained how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border given [then-President-elect] Biden’s promise to roll back major enforcement and security measures”. Hawley was criticized by the Biden transition team.

On February 2, 2021, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell moved to vote against Mayorkas’ confirmation, saying that Mayorkas is an “ethically compromised partisan lawyer”. McConnell then said that Mayorkas has promoted “a culture of fear and disrespect”. McConnell further stated that when working with Obama administration, Mayorkas turned the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services into “an unethical favor factory for Democratic Party royalty”, referencing a report where in 2015, Mayorkas helped several foreign investors connected to Democrats get Green Cards.

Ultimately, Mayorkas was confirmed on a 56-43 vote. Republican Senators Shelley Moore Capito, Rob Portman, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan voted with the Democrats to confirm Mayorkas.

Tenure

Mayorkas arrives at DHS headquarters following his swearing-in as Secretary of Homeland Security

Mayorkas was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris on February 2, 2021, after his confirmation that day.

Personal life

Mayorkas and his wife Tanya have two daughters, Giselle and Amelia. He is a runner and plays tennis and squash.

Sources

  • Johnson, Ross (September 2000). “The Enforcer”. Los Angeles. 45 (9): 68–80.

  • Media related to Alejandro Mayorkas at Wikimedia Commons
  • Appearances on C-SPAN Edit this at Wikidata
  • Alejandro Mayorkas on Twitter Edit this at Wikidata
Legal offices
Preceded by
Nora Margaret Manella
United States Attorney for the Central District of California
1998–2001
Succeeded by
Debra Wong Yang
Political offices
Preceded by
Jonathan Scharfen
Acting
Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
2009–2013
Succeeded by
Lori Scialabba
Acting
Preceded by
Rafael Borras
Acting
United States Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security
2013–2016
Succeeded by
Russell Deyo
Acting
Preceded by
Kirstjen Nielsen
United States Secretary of Homeland Security
2021–present
Incumbent
U.S. order of precedence (ceremonial)
Preceded by
Denis McDonough
as Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Order of precedence of the United States
as Secretary of Homeland Security
Succeeded by
Ron Klain
as White House Chief of Staff
U.S. presidential line of succession
Preceded by
Denis McDonough
as Secretary of Veterans Affairs
18th in line
as Secretary of Homeland Security
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