Mayorkas is first Latino and first immigrant to head the department, which oversees immigration and domestic security.
US President Joe Biden will issue an executive order to build up the country’s capacity to accept refugees, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said during a White House briefing on Thursday, but the timing of the action remains unclear.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said later in the briefing that she did not expect Biden to issue the order on Thursday, but that Biden is “committed to looking for ways to ensure more refugees are welcomed into the United States”.
Biden has pledged to restore the US’s historical role as a country that welcomes refugees from around the world after four years of cuts to admissions under former US President Donald Trump. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are 1.4 million refugees worldwide in urgent need of resettlement.
During his presidency, Trump portrayed refugees as a security threat and a drain on US communities as he took a series of measures to restrict legal immigration. The Biden administration is confronting a refugee programme hobbled by Trump’s hardline policies, which led to the closure of resettlement offices and disrupted the pipeline of refugees to the US, a situation exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We want to put in place an immigration process here that can – that is humane, that is moral, that considers applications for refugees, applications for people to come to – into this country, at the border, in a way that treats people as human beings,” Psaki said on Tuesday.
“That’s going to take some time,” she said, “It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Biden was expected to issue the refugee order in conjunction with a speech on Thursday at the US Department of State that aimed to reinvigorate the workforce there, but the order was delayed, according to one person familiar with the plan. The reason for the delay was not clear.
Biden promised on the campaign trail to raise the annual refugee ceiling to 125,000, up from a record-low 15,000 set by Trump for this fiscal year.
Since taking office two weeks ago, Biden, a Democrat, has signed nine executive orders aimed at overturning Trump’s hardline immigration policies.
He overturned the so-called “Muslim travel ban”, halted the construction of the wall along the US-Mexico border and preserved DACA – a programme that gave status to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children.
But Biden has also proposed bold action when it comes to immigration, including an immigration bill that proposes a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US – a serious move that requires Congress approval.
So far, most of the changes have been enacted through executive action, and it remains unclear if he will be able to pass any legislation in Congress, where a two-thirds majority is needed, and where Biden proposals are expected to be faced with stiff resistance from Republicans.