All eyes are on President-elect Joe Biden and his picks for his Cabinet. Among those named in the first round of Biden’s advisors is Alejandro Mayorkas, who’s been tapped to lead the Department of Homeland Security. But while the excesses of DHS have gotten particular scrutiny in the last four years, Mayorkas will need to revamp an organization that’s never been entirely sure of its mission.
For the immigrant community at large and for those undocumented in particular, DHS represents the white nationalist, nativist presidency that Trump has come to symbolize for so many.
Biden’s initial personnel announcements seemed to signal his administration’s immediate priorities: the pandemic, mending our international standing, securing ourselves from immediate foreign adversaries and cleaning up a department that has gone rogue under President Donald Trump — which feels appropriately emblematic of his entire presidency.
The DHS that former President George W. Bush cobbled together from various agencies in the aftermath of Sept. 11 has under Trump been responsible for some of the grossest violations of human rights our government has committed since Abu Ghraib. There have been reports of sterilizing women, guards sexually assaulting detainees, failures to locate the parents of 666 children detained in the U.S., separating thousands of children from their parents and fundamentally overhauling what our immigration system looks like and stands for.
Acting DHS head Chad Wolf — who replaced former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was responsible for family separation of migrants and tear-gassing refugees at the border — was found in violation of the law recently by a judge who declared that Wolf didn’t have the authority to lead the agency. The United Nations declared some of Trump’s policies a violation of the rights of children.
Needless to say, as the new head of Homeland Security, Mayorkas has his work cut out for him. He is inheriting a sprawling agency that even under former President Barack Obama many regarded as the Wild West, where anything goes. Trump unleashed the kraken of cruelty and impunity on what was already an agency difficult to rule and rife with dysfunction.
The notion that Mayorkas can set in and start to rebuild and restore DHS is faulty logic. The truth is the rot had set in long before Trump dug his hands into the organization. Trump made things worse and caused extensive damage with his inhumane policies, but DHS was far from where we needed it to be already. Mayorkas’ task is to keep us safe while simultaneously showing us our forgotten values.
For the immigrant community at large and for those undocumented in particular, DHS represents the white nationalist, nativist presidency that Trump has come to symbolize for so many. More than 16 million people are members of a mixed-status family. And 50 million more of us, as brown people in America — whether Latino, Muslim, Asian or other — have never felt more vulnerable in our homes or scared to venture outside of our communities.
The notion that Mayorkas can set in and start to rebuild and restore DHS is faulty logic.
Mayorkas’ professional chops including helping spearhead the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program when he served at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under Obama, and his own refugee story seems to indicate that he will bring empathy, cultural competency and institutional know-how to an agency lacking all three.
Mayorkas needs to examine the fundamental purpose of a DHS that employs over 240,000 people — the third-largest Cabinet department, after the departments of defense and veteran affairs. The DHS mandate is unwieldy and vast. DHS houses Customs and Border Protection, and it is also charged with our nation’s cybersecurity. As with so many broken programs, now is the opportunity to reimagine DHS, especially where it carries out its primary mission to keep us safe from domestic terrorism.
Aside from reuniting the families cruelly separated as a top priority, Mayorkas should bring those who caused tremendous harm and torment to helpless vulnerable people, women and children in particular, to account. It will send a message to the international community, immigrant communities and Americans as a whole: There are consequences to following the blind orders in the face of breaking the law, as countless judges have found against the Trump administration.