Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday that his decision to ban use of the term “illegal alien” was about restoring dignity to undocumented immigrants, saying their unauthorized presence in the U.S. should not be their defining characteristic.
Mr. Mayorkas, speaking to the American Constitution Society, said his push to reunite families separated during President Trump’s zero-tolerance border policy was also about dignity, and so was his effort to push for lawyers to be made available to children going through immigration court proceedings.
He also said he decided to end migrant-detention contracts with locally run facilities because he felt detainees weren’t being granted dignity, and he suggested more cancellations will be coming.
“The law as an instrument of delivering dignity can bring that to a single individual,” he said. “Sometimes the impact on one individual can reverberate throughout an entire institution and bring systemic change.”
His focus on dignity went beyond immigration to include other parts of Homeland Security’s mission, including COVID-19 vaccine efforts led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Mr. Mayorkas said the Biden administration has made concerted efforts to get shots to communities that have lower rates of vaccination “to ensure that not only our efforts but their needs receive the dignity they deserve.”
His efforts have ranged from substantive to semantic.
One move the department made earlier this year was to ban use of the term “illegal alien.”
“We should refer to those individuals as ‘noncitizens’ to reflect that their lawful presence or their unlawful presence in the United States does not define their dignity as individuals, but is separate and apart from that fundamental question,” he said.
Mr. Mayorkas is in his second go at Homeland Security, having served during the Obama era as head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the legal immigration agency, and then as deputy secretary of the whole department.
The Obama administration set records for deportations, drawing fierce criticism from the left. The Biden administration, with Mr. Mayorkas at the helm, appears focused on placating those critics, even as the policy changes have invited a record surge at the border.
Mr. Mayorkas said he’s trying to marry dignity and the rule of law in the department, calling them “two foundational guideposts.”
Critics on the right say Mr. Mayorkas is shortchanging the rule-of-law aspect of that equation by carving most undocumented immigrants out of any danger of deportation and failing to get a grip on the border.
In response, he points to the portion of U.S. law that establishes the asylum system, which allows undocumented immigrants to make demands for protection and have those cases heard.
Even though the vast majority of cases fail to win asylum, and many migrants are using the system to gain an illegal foothold in the U.S., Mr. Mayorkas said he has an obligation to protect the right to make the claims.