President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, was confirmed Tuesday by the United States Senate.
Mayorkas, who was confirmed by a 56-43 vote, was the first of Biden’s cabinet picks to face major Republican backlash in the chamber, including a filibuster, which Democrats broke on Thursday.
The Cuban-born Mayorkas is the first Latino head of homeland security and also the first immigrant to head the department, which was created in 2002 and oversees an array of immigration, counterterrorism, disaster relief, border security and cybersecurity.
Mayorkas, who previously served as the DHS deputy secretary and director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services under former President Barack Obama, is the first confirmed official to head the department since former President Donald Trump’s appointee, Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to resign in April 2019.
During his hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Mayorkas said he would help the Biden administration oversee the unravelling of Trump’s immigration policies, ceasing funding to the border wall, and overhauling Trump’s stymieing of the asylum process.
He said he did not support defunding Immigration and Customs Control, as progressives have called for.
Mayorkas also called the threat of domestic extremism in the wake of the US Capitol riot on January 6 “one of the greatest challenges the Department of Homeland Security confronts, and it has unique capabilities in confronting that challenge”.
The confirmation comes hours after Pete Buttigieg, a centrist Biden opponent during the Democratic primary, was confirmed as transport secretary by an 86-13 vote. He is the first openly gay Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretary in US history.
Biden’s Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen have all been confirmed by the Senate since Biden took office.
Immigration, threats of extremism and cyberattacks
The confirmation of Mayorkas became an increasingly urgent matter for the Biden administration in recent days, with nominees of previous presidents, Trump and Obama, confirmed on their first day in office.
On Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, citing a Republican-made delay in the confirmation of Mayorkas, said an executive order launching a family reunification task force had been pushed back.
The confirmation also comes days after the acting head of the department issued a bulletin that warned “ideologically-motivated violent extremists” could be emboldened by the deadly January 6 riot at the US Capitol and “could continue to mobilise to incite or commit violence”.
DHS is also set to aid in coronavirus vaccine distribution and Mayorkas will take office amid a push to respond to the so-called SolarWinds cyberattack, which saw the widespread hacking of several federal agencies. The scope of the attack is still being determined.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a member of the homeland security committee, initially moved to block fast-tracking Mayorkas’s confirmation shortly before Biden’s inauguration, saying he was dissatisfied with his response to questions related to the immigration crisis at the southern border.
Other Republicans raised concerns over a 2015 Inspector General report that said Mayorkas created the appearance of “special access” after intervening in a visa programme for wealthy investors. The report concluded that Mayorkas did not break any laws.
Last week, Republican Senator John Cornyn lead a group of seven other Republicans calling for Mayorkas to appear for a Judiciary Committee hearing before his nomination.
The letter said the committee should have the chance to “publicly discuss with him his plans with respect to the Department’s immigration components and functions”.
The Democratic chair of the committee, Dick Durbin, called the delay “unnecessary”, charging it would needlessly put “national security at risk”.