Abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a nonstarter and the fate of the border wall is uncertain, but the Biden team does want to grant citizenship rights to most illegal immigrants and to pump money into Latin America as the way to discourage illegal immigration, Alejandro Mayorkas, the pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, told senators Tuesday.
Appearing for his confirmation hearing, Mr. Mayorkas cast himself as a boundary-breaking leader ready to shake up a department that has lacked a confirmed secretary for nearly two years.
He promised an aggressive effort to overturn Trump policies focused on turning back illegal immigrants at the border and said the solution lies farther south, where nation-building in Latin America will try to keep people from leaving home in the first place.
Those plans will be coupled with the most generous amnesty in U.S. history. Illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before Jan. 1 will get a chance at citizenship if they meet other requirements, Mr. Mayorkas said.
“I would be privileged to work with Congress to pass immigration reform legislation that provides that path and provides a permanent solution to what is clearly a broken system,” he told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The panel is controlled by Republicans for now, but leadership will transfer to Democrats when Georgia’s two newly elected senators take the oath of office.
That should pave Mr. Mayorkas’ path to confirmation, despite a withering 2015 inspector general’s report that accused him of political favoritism during his time as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama administration.
That report, released after Mr. Mayorkas was elevated to deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, said he intervened in cases involving major Democrats: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell. Mr. Mayorkas had his agency approve visa applications from wealthy foreign investors tied to projects of those three men.
He violated his own ethics rules, too, the audit found.
The inspector general’s report also said Mr. Mayorkas was strident and prickly in his dealings with underlings at USCIS. Such charges in the past have derailed high-level nominations.
Mr. Mayorkas vehemently rejected the inspector general’s findings at the time. He said Tuesday that he found a broken agency that was getting cases wrong and, as director, he felt he had to step in and force the right decisions.
“It is my job to become involved, to learn the problems that an agency confronts, to become involved in those problems, and to fix them. That’s what I did in this case,” he said.
Mr. Mayorkas spent more than four years at the helm of USCIS, then three years as deputy secretary at the full Homeland Security Department, where he served under Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Democrats said that time in office was his chief selling point because it meant he won’t need to get acquainted with the issues facing Homeland Security while the sprawling department is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, cybersecurity breaches, a potential border surge and growing threats from right-wing extremists.
“I believe Ali is uniquely qualified to face the challenges before DHS,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who introduced Mr. Mayorkas to the panel.
Despite his experience, Mr. Mayorkas said at least 15 times during the hearing that he would have to study an issue before he could give an answer about how he would approach a certain matter. That included questions such as how the department has performed during the pandemic and whether ICE needs more funding or personnel.
“I will have to study the condition of Immigration Customs Enforcement, how efficiently and effectively it is using its resources, and how it is best serving the American public. That requires my study,” he said.
Mr. Mayorkas also said he needs to study the newly enacted spending law to figure out whether the $1.375 billion included for border infrastructure can be siphoned away from wall-building. He did say, however, that President-elect Joseph R. Biden has made clear that he would prefer not to build another foot of wall.
The nominee also demurred when asked whether any of the more than 450 miles of wall built under Mr. Trump should be pulled down.
“I haven’t looked at that specific question,” he said.
Mr. Mayorkas’ nomination has support from a striking range of parties.
The National Border Patrol Council, the union for Border Patrol agents that strongly backed President Trump, has endorsed Mr. Mayorkas’ nomination.
“I can tell you, Mayorkas understands the importance of not opening up the floodgates,” said Brandon Judd, president of the NBPC. “I’m looking at what Mayorkas did during the Obama administration, and he did give us resources to try to hold people pending proper proceedings.”
He said he doesn’t expect Mr. Mayorkas to maintain all of the Trump policies that were effective in stemming the 2018 and 2019 border surges, but he added that others under consideration for the post were less palatable.
Also backing Mr. Mayorkas are immigrant rights activist groups on the left, even though his time in the Obama administration included detaining and deporting families and erecting the chain-link fence enclosures at border stations used to hold children, and which critics dubbed “cages” in the Trump years.
Under questioning from Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, Mr. Mayorkas acknowledged that those chain-link pens were built on his watch. Still, he vehemently rejected the accusation that families were separated during his time in office.
What the Obama administration did do was vastly expand the detention network to hold families so they could be deported.
Left-leaning activist groups have signaled that they are willing to overlook that history for the chance to get a homeland security secretary who can be confirmed by an evenly divided Senate and can erase Trump policies.
They also hope that this administration will be able to legalize most illegal immigrants.
President George W. Bush and President Obama tried but failed to get legislation through Congress.
The proposal to offer citizenship rights to as many as 11 million illegal immigrants will be presented to Congress on Wednesday, Mr. Mayorkas said.
According to news reports, it will not include any new border security or interior enforcement provisions. Past Senate proposals included hundreds of miles of border wall, thousands more immigration agents and new rules to try to block businesses from turning to illegal labor.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who worked on the last major immigration push in 2013, called Mr. Biden’s plan a “nonstarter” for Republicans.
“There are many issues I think we can work cooperatively with President-elect Biden, but a blanket amnesty for people who are here unlawfully isn’t going to be one of them,” he said in a statement.