Biden’s Homeland Security pick faces questions on 2015 probe

FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2020, file photo, President-elect Joe Biden's Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. The last time Mayorkas faced Senate confirmation, not a single Republican voted for him because there was an open investigation into his management of the U.S. immigration agency under President Barack Obama.. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

By BEN FOX and MATTHEW DALY
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON  — The last time Alejandro Mayorkas faced Senate confirmation, not a single Republican voted for him because there was an open investigation into his management of the U.S. immigration agency under President Barack Obama.

Now, seven years later, Mayorkas is President-elect Joe Biden’s groundbreaking nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and that since-completed investigation has emerged as a potential stumbling block.

The Office of Inspector General’s 2015 report criticized his handling of three politically connected applications to a program that grants U.S. visas to foreigners who make job-creating investments in the United States. Mayorkas has disputed the findings, and he never faced any sanctions, but Republican senators are bringing it up ahead of what could be a tight confirmation vote.

It’s too soon to say whether the nomination of Mayorkas, who would be the first Latino and first immigrant to run DHS, is in jeopardy. But lawmakers such as Sen. Charles Grassley have expressed concern about the report, which concluded that Mayorkas created an appearance of favoritism and special access at Citizenship and Immigration Services when he was director from 2009 to 2013.

“That brand of leadership isn’t good for agency culture or the security of our nation,” the Iowa Republican told The Associated Press on Thursday.

It’s an important moment for Homeland Security, the third-largest Cabinet agency. DHS became closely identified with President Donald Trump’s political agenda, as it imposed new hurdles to restrict legal immigration, dispatched agents in tactical gear to protests over the summer without the consent of local authorities and employed controversial measures against illegal immigration, most notoriously the separation of children from their families at the southwest border as part of a zero-tolerance policy in 2018.

Under Biden, the Cuban-born Mayorkas is expected to direct a major reset of the agency’s priorities, which he signaled in recent remarks to the American Business Immigration Coalition.

“We must bring to an immediate end the inhumane and unjust treatment of immigrants,” he said. “There is no more powerful and heartbreaking example of that inhumanity than the separation of children from their parents.”

Supporters say Mayorkas’s experience, which includes serving as a federal prosecutor, is an asset not a liability.

“He is a man of great integrity and principle, with an incomparable work ethic, who understands the complexities of this critical agency and the threats facing our country at this crucial moment,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who chaired the Homeland Security Committee when Mayorkas was named deputy DHS chief in 2013.

Mayorkas may yet get some Republican support, which Biden may need if the Democrats don’t win the two seats in the Georgia Senate runoff; Republicans only need to win one to maintain their control of the Senate.

John Rowe, a prominent GOP donor who co-chairs the business immigration coalition and favors a more welcoming attitude toward immigrants, said he planned to speak with several Republican senators to urge them to support Mayorkas.

“This is an easy vote,” said Rowe, the former CEO of Exelon Corp. “Some of the other immigration votes are not that easy for Republicans who have to go home to primaries. No one is going to lose their seat because they vote to confirm Mayorkas.”

A separate issue that could come up is his role in the 2001 pardon by President Bill Clinton of Carlos Vignali Jr., the son of a wealthy businessman and Democratic donor who was convicted of involvement in a cocaine trafficking ring. Mayorkas, then the U.S. attorney for Los Angeles, called the White House to ask about the status of the case at the request of the family. He explained later that the Justice Department had cleared the call but apologized for a “mistake.” The issue did not block his confirmation to lead CIS in 2009 in a unanimous Senate vote.

The Biden transition team views neither issue as an impediment to confirmation. “While we fully expected disagreement with some members of the Senate, we’re gratified by the overwhelmingly positive reaction and strong bipartisan acclaim that Alejandro has received,” spokesman Sean Savett said.