Is he too tough on immigrants — or too soft? Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security chief, tries to find a way out of a national crisis. – The Washington Post

In the late-1970s, an undergraduate named Alejandro Mayorkas took a semester off from his studies at the University of California at Berkeley to attend a seminar on propaganda in Los Angeles, the city that had shaped and animated him since his arrival as a Cuban immigrant at the age of 1. The UCLA course was being taught by Carey McWilliams, a former editor of the ur-leftist magazine the Nation who had earned acclaim writing scathingly about large agribusiness entities and the plight of migrant farmworkers.
Mayorkas is now homeland security secretary, which makes him the nation’s top immigration law enforcer; he’s also the first Latino and the first immigrant to hold his current post. Recently, he looked back on that UCLA seminar in a conversation with me — the first of several this summer. He wanted to illustrate a point about what he had learned as a young man regarding the power of words, a lesson he has built upon over many years as a federal prosecutor in Southern California and as a high-ranking Washington political appointee.
In a sense, he is the one now holding a seminar on language — but for an entire nation knotted in an intractable immigration fight that stretches back decades. In our interview, Mayorkas reflected on an exchange he’d recently had with Ron Johnson, a combative and reliably irritated Republican U.S. senator from Wisconsin.
Johnson had harrumphed a question at a committee hearing, asking if Mayorkas was able to locate migrants who’d skipped immigration court appearances, then “round them up.” To Mayorkas it sounded like the language of the previous administration — not unlike other terms he’d heard in hearings to describe an unprecedented flow of people trying to enter the United States without documentation: “invasion,” “breaking in.” He told Johnson he would use other words.
“ ‘Rounding up’ is not a term that I would use for people,” Mayorkas told me. Asked what the term should be used for, Mayorkas paused. For a long, long time.
He is a diminutive 62-year-old. (“Just under” 5-foot-7, he once cracked to me with a sly smile that said it’s more than “just” under.) He has thick, untamed eyebrows and prominent ears that bookend a shaved head. He has a tendency to opine in ways that recall a philosopher guru. Yoda meets Mr. Clean.
In moments such as these — when a topic taps at his core — his manner can shift quickly. He draws into himself, jaw tightening, eyes cast somewhere faraway. Searching for the right word. Finally, he broke the silence with a one-word answer to describe what he’d use the term “rounding up” for: “animals.”
(Johnson, who has focused attention on drug cartels involved in smuggling migrants, said in an email: “What I find offensive is the administration’s complete disregard for its responsibility to enforce immigration law and secure our borders. They are facilitating the multibillion dollar business model of the most evil people on the planet.”)
In mid-September, less than two months after my discussion with Mayorkas about Johnson’s choice of words, rhetoric became reality. Border Patrol agents on horseback were caught on video actually conducting a roundup, chasing and attempting to grab Haitian migrants in Texas. Mayorkas said he was “horrified” by the tableau.
[Mayorkas: Homeland security officials will investigate after images show agents on horseback grabbing migrants]
Here was Alejandro Mayorkas the empath, a child of refugees who draws on his family history to make a case to treat all immigrants humanely. In a town preternaturally obsessed with titles — you get to be Mr. Secretary or Madam Ambassador forever — he’s just Ali, the approachable power broker. But there is another Ali Mayorkas, a public figure steeled by his years bringing criminals to justice as the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, a bureaucratic knife fighter adept at consolidating clout and outmaneuvering rivals. In his thinking, the two Mayorkases — the tough guy and the compassionate guy — are not mutually exclusive. They’re one.
The Mayorkas self-assessment poses a proposition for our times: Is there a middle? What he’s looking for, what he struggles to explain in a political environment pulled taut from the poles, is room for nuance. It’s a notion in keeping with his takeaways from that seminar at UCLA when he pondered concepts that were “novel” to him then, he says, but make sense now.
McWilliams, the seminar instructor at UCLA, had a “theory of ultimate causation,” Mayorkas told me in another conversation one afternoon in his office in the grand old red-brick building overlooking the Anacostia River that not so long ago housed St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital. The theory, as Mayorkas recounted it, was wrapped in a question, just the sort of puzzle that appealed to him as a student and still intrigues him: “If an individual commits a crime, should we not dig into what ultimately drove that individual to commit the crime? Not necessarily at the moment, but dig deep into history, that person’s history, and see what is the cause of it?”
In the courtroom he could make opening statements and closing arguments that developed those sorts of heady concepts, ideas that filled in holes in logic and fact, delivered in a whisper-quiet room. But it’s noisy where he spends his time now — in the center of a furious and hyperbolic debate.
Immigration hawks assail him as too soft. The most progressive migrant advocates lambaste him as too hard. Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection under President Donald Trump, paints Mayorkas as “a social activist” who “has single-handedly directed our borders to be open and less secure than they have been in our lifetime.” But then there are the more than 100 activist groups that recently excoriated Mayorkas and the Biden White House in an open letter, accusing them of using “cruel, unlawful, and ineffective deterrence-based policies that extend rather than dismantle the previous administration’s approach to migration.”
Mayorkas told me it is not his job to “reconcile” those competing viewpoints; it’s to “execute” the law. Still, the question dangles out there: Can he find the right words to lower the temperature at both ends of the extreme?
He is prone to giving his detractors easy targets. He’s been disinclined to use the term “crisis” to describe the historic border surge, stubbornly preferring the more anodyne “challenge,” thus handing the Biden administration’s opponents a talking point reducible to a single word.
[At border, record number of migrant youths wait in adult detention cells for longer than legally allowed]
And he’s insisted that the border isn’t “open,” arguing that regular processes of immigration law enforcement are being used, even though they are enmeshed in a “broken” system that only Congress can change. Again, his wording makes this a tough sell when images of migrants streaming into the country flood the Internet, and Border Patrol sources have been whispering to journalists that each day an estimated 1,000 people, known as “got aways,” are entering the country without being taken into custody. Though he doesn’t control the entire jumbled immigration system, much of the fallout when the border becomes a mess tends to land on Mayorkas. His accountability far exceeds his authority.
With accountability comes risk. In the unforgiving landscape of Washington politics, he occupies one of the most — perhaps the most — precarious seats in President Biden’s Cabinet, a job inextricably entangled with the political fortunes of a White House burdened by dismal polling numbers on immigration and sagging overall approval ratings. One wonders whether Mayorkas will have the time he says he needs. Is there political space to achieve his desired long-game reinvention of America’s immigration system — a complex set of goals that includes addressing “root causes” of migration in Central America and other places, building an orderly path for migrants to apply for asylum, and dismantling human smuggling networks? Might he end up as a fall guy for a political and policy mess with no solution? Can Mayorkas — and his nuanced, complicated approach — survive? Could anyone?

There used to be a fig tree here,” Ali Mayorkas says. Tangerines and oranges, too. He’s scanning the backyard of his childhood home — now occupied by one of his brothers — a compact Spanish Colonial with arched doorways, a barrel-tile roof and palms out front. It sits on a neat, modest street with an incongruous Beverly Hills address that looks nothing like the Beverly Hills of gated mansions and movie stars we see on television.
Idealized memories of this place are at the core of his identity, this tiny fruit-tree studded patch of the American Dream where his parents eventually settled after wresting themselves in 1960 out of a Cuba smothered in the early stages of Fidel Castro’s oppressive Communist regime. That heritage has given him standing with immigrant activists, bona fides that can redound to his benefit.
His father, Nicky Mayorkas, had run a steel-wool factory in Havana. His mother, Anita, was twice a refugee. She escaped to Cuba from her native Romania amid the rise of antisemitism sweeping Europe in the years before World War II. Then she was uprooted again after building a life for herself and starting a family, this time driven away by Castro’s despotism.
The family is Jewish, though not particularly observant; still its searing backstory informed their worldview. Mayorkas’s maternal grandfather lost eight brothers and other family members in the Holocaust. “Observance was not necessary to understand who we were and who we are,” Mayorkas says.
If they’d gone to Miami or other parts of Florida, as the vast majority of Cubans had done, Mayorkas might have grown up drenched in anti-Castro sentiments that permeated almost every aspect of daily life. In Los Angeles, the family’s Cuban roots made them an exception in a city where the dominant Latino cultures were Mexican and Central American.
One recent afternoon, Ali Mayorkas pulled down a photo from the wall in his DHS office. In the framed image his father is laughing, a drink in his hand. Nicky Mayorkas, his son said, had a different personality when he spoke Spanish instead of English: “Funny, vivacious, just a whole different thing.” (Ali Mayorkas says he’s self-conscious about mis-conjugating verbs in Spanish and has been trying to find time to brush up: “My grammar is suboptimal.”)
“I never, ever, ever saw him like that,” Mayorkas said of his father, choking back tears. “And seeing that photo” — sent to him by a brother — “lifted my spirit so much.”
He took a moment to try to compose himself. Then he started to say something but had to stop again. He cleared his throat. He changed the subject.
His parents made enough money to support the family; his father worked as a controller at a textile manufacturer. But they were way out of their economic strata when he attended Beverly Hills High School. Once, Mayorkas recalls, a fellow student’s wealthy mother tried to recruit him and others to clean her son’s room. “I was coming home saying, ‘You can’t believe what’s going on,’ ” he says.
He didn’t pine to be one of the rich kids, he says. “I felt like we had the world in our hands. I felt like the luckiest kid in the world with the parents I had. Period.”
He didn’t take the cleaning job. He later worked for a messenger service, slogging through the dystopian traffic jams of the Los Angeles metropolitan area on tight deadlines in a 1969 Plymouth Valiant with no air conditioning. The company hired him even though he got into an accident on the way to the job interview. “The most stressful job,” says the man who now has one of Washington’s most stressful jobs.
Mayorkas went on to get a law degree at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. One day early in his career, he heard about a woman on his firm’s administrative staff whose husband had been deported. He sought her out. “I just remember her face,” Mayorkas recalls. “Her countenance. Her despair.”

If there’s a counterweight argument to Ali Mayorkas as an immigration pushover, it tracks to downtown Los Angeles, where he made his name in the 1990s as a prosecutor of white-collar crimes in the U.S. attorney’s office. He had weightier cases but is most remembered for winning a conviction on money laundering and tax evasion charges in the mid-’90s against the “Hollywood Madam,” Heidi Fleiss.
In 1998, Mayorkas, then in his late 30s, leaped over several more-seasoned heirs apparent, shocking even his friends and supporters, and was named the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California by President Bill Clinton. Just as Mayorkas leans into his immigrant family roots when bonding with activists, he leans into his days leading a team of prosecutors when wooing politicians skeptical that he will aggressively enforce America’s immigration laws.
When Clinton left office in 2001, Mayorkas morphed from prosecutor to commodity. “He was incredibly in-demand coming out of government,” says Matt Close, a partner at O’Melveny, the firm that landed Mayorkas. He was, says Close, a big name who attracted big clients.
His friends at the L.A. firm, and earlier at the U.S. attorney’s office, nicknamed him “the mayor of downtown.” On dinner outings it took forever to get to their table because “he knew every waiter, waitress, busboy, bartender,” recalls Carl Moor, a California appeals court associate justice who worked with Mayorkas in the U.S. attorney’s office.
As a prosecutor, the wins and losses were clear. In private practice the action was often outside the public eye, especially in cases involving clients such as Qwest, a telecommunications company hit by major regulatory fines and a financial scandal. “What constitutes a victory is only really understood by the insiders. … I think that’s probably analogous to a lot of things he’s doing now,” says Close, describing Mayorkas’s tenure at the firm in general terms, rather than referring to specific work.
Mayorkas was making big money. But that wasn’t enough. “We talked a lot about how no matter how much personal satisfaction he derived from doing really high-quality, complicated litigation, it wasn’t quite the same as solving problems that were in the public interest,” says David Lash, who headed a nonprofit legal services agency before Mayorkas helped recruit him for O’Melveney’s pro bono program. “He felt that there was a little something missing because of what he had left behind.”

If there’s a counterweight argument to Ali Mayorkas as too tough on immigration, it tracks to the offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a DHS agency that he headed starting in 2009. “USCIS is culturally totally different because they are the benefit-according organization. They are the component that gives people green cards and has citizenship ceremonies and does interviews at refugee camps,” says Alexandra Veitch, a former DHS official who worked closely with Mayorkas.
USCIS was viewed by some as “light and fluffy.” Under Mayorkas’s leadership, the agency ran public service announcements promoting citizenship and helped activist groups develop flash cards, still used today, that applicants can use to study for citizenship tests. He spearheaded reductions in fees for citizenship applications. Immigration restrictionists dubbed him the man intent on “getting to yes” for migrants they believe should have been told no.
He also got tagged as “The Father of DACA,” which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that lets some people who were brought to the country as children remain here and get renewable work visas even though they’re undocumented. The label is an overstatement. He didn’t invent DACA. But it was his job to develop the nitty-gritty details and to implement them at lightning speed.
Built out of whole cloth, it was a supremely complicated task — yet the White House, which was driving the process, was clear about what it wanted: “It’s going to be fast and it’s going to be smooth,” says John Sandweg, a former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, under President Barack Obama.
Some of Mayorkas’s USCIS staffers were nervous, cautioning that the goals might be too ambitious and would require diverting resources from other essential work, according to a former high-ranking government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Sometimes things got heated. Mayorkas was “stuck in the middle” between a White House moving at warp speed and the reality checkers in the room, the official says. A few times he lost his cool.
“Ali can have a temper,” the official says. Invariably afterward, in “very Ali fashion, he goes out of his way to make it up to you. He’s good at repairing.”
Mayorkas, who says now he doesn’t remember losing his temper, was also taking heat from outside. In one meeting with activists, an attendee threatened mass protests if DACA didn’t debut on its planned Aug. 15, 2012, launch date, according to another participant, Angelica Salas, who heads the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, known as CHIRLA.
Mayorkas responded with a strained smile. “It was sort of like, ‘I hear you. Do you understand how hard this is going to be?’ ” Salas says. “We still laugh about that.”
They can laugh now because the program launch generally went smoothly, even though there were some backlogs as tens of thousands of applicants appeared. Mayorkas had faced his biggest public test. He’d aced it. That was exactly what most everyone expected a year later when Obama nominated him to become the DHS deputy secretary, the department’s second-ranking position. They could not have been any more wrong.

In late July 2013 while Mayorkas was in the final hours of prepping for his confirmation hearings, the Associated Press popped a juicy scoop, reporting that he was under investigation by the DHS inspector general’s office. Whistleblowers had complained he’d helped a finance company run by Hillary Clinton’s brother, Anthony Rodham, win approval for a Chinese investor’s visa, even though the application and a subsequent appeal had been previously denied.
More scoops followed, including the revelation that powerhouse Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe, then running for Virginia governor, was involved in the investigation because he was founder of a company that stood to benefit from the visas. Visas also went to a company that employed the son of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
The contretemps created an opportunity for opponents to bring up another problem for Mayorkas that had surfaced a few years earlier: As U.S. attorney he’d called to inquire about a commutation for a convicted drug dealer, Carlos Vignali, whose father, a Democratic donor, had hired Hillary Clinton’s other brother, Hugh Rodham, to lobby for the deal.
Mayorkas had acknowledged making a “mistake” but vigorously denied wrongdoing and characterized the inquiries as normal activities for a federal prosecutor. As for the visa issue, he said he’d merely met with McAuliffe to hear his complaints and taken steps to improve an ineffective internal system that had been criticized by both sides of the political aisle.
Two possibilities existed. One, he’d committed the sin of favoritism. Or, in the more generous assessment of the situation, he’d committed another kind of power-player sin: He hadn’t considered the optics. In headlines, he’d become that “controversial nominee.”
“It was very hurtful to him. It’s so anathema to who he is,” says Veitch, who was helping him prepare for the confirmation hearings. “He was genuinely sad.”
Keith Ashdown, a Republican staffer on the Senate committee handling the confirmation hearings who fought the Mayorkas nomination but has since regretted it, said in an interview that “it looked bad, and [Mayorkas] should have realized it would look bad.”
Republicans stalled, saying they shouldn’t vote during an ongoing investigation. But half a year later, with the probe still incomplete, the “controversial nominee” was confirmed, without a single Republican vote. By the time the inspector general’s report came out, with its conclusion that he’d broken no laws but that the complaints about Mayorkas were “reasonable,” he was already firmly installed as deputy secretary.
In 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors and families poured across the southwestern border as rumors spread in Central America that they would have a glide path to legal residency. The Obama administration had been taking aggressive steps for years, eventually deporting more people than any administration in history — earning the president the title of “Deporter in Chief,” a term that has stuck to this day after being coined by Janet Murguia, president of UnidosUS, then known as the National Council of La Raza.
DHS, under then-Secretary Jeh Johnson, made a polarizing decision to detain families. It often fell to Mayorkas to sell the approach to livid Democratic members of Congress in closed-door meetings. One much-respected Democratic member did not “mince words,” Veitch says, declining to name the member. “They were very direct and they were extremely, extremely critical.”
“Ali understood that this was an unbelievably difficult situation, again, with no good options, and that he had a responsibility to the families at the border to treat them humanely,” Veitch told me. “But he also had a responsibility to enforce the nation’s immigration laws and to try and stem this sort of surge. … It’s a really useful example of Ali having to balance these impossibly competing dynamics.” In private, Mayorkas confided to Veitch how “painful this decision was for him.”
This summer, I asked Mayorkas whether he’d been forced to defend a policy he didn’t believe in. He answered in Mayorkian fashion, first saying, “Detaining families is not something that we are currently doing.” Pressed, he went a little further: “I have been in government now for more than 20 years, and there are policies with which I have agreed and policies with which I have disagreed. … That’s part of being a member of an organization in a leadership structure.”
In the waning days of the Obama administration, Mayorkas traveled to Cuba for the first time amid an opening of relations between the enemy governments. A member of the Cuban delegation said to him, “You know, we expected you to come here with real anger, and we don’t see that in you.”
“Anger,” Mayorkas had decided, would wait “for another day” when he could focus more on the “repression of the Cuban people” and less on nostalgia. One of his Cuban government hosts gave him a sheaf of yellowing papers and file cards. It was his parents’ original Cuban immigration file.

Mayorkas, who is married with two daughters, had profitably passed through the government’s revolving door once. With Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, he passed through again, joining WilmerHale, one of the capital’s most prestigious law firms. Sometimes, he’d meet Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, at Morton’s, the venerable downtown Washington steakhouse, for a meal or drinks.
On those evenings, it was obvious to Pasco that his friend wanted to go back into government. Mayorkas “made no bones about it, you know, the whole time he was out,” Pasco told me. “He saw it as an opportunity to try to build on what they have there.”
Mayorkas, who was leaving a sweet gig that paid him millions of dollars the year before his nomination to become secretary, was a generally well-received choice on the left. He salted his leadership ranks with people who had activist backgrounds, sending a signal he’d be listening to their concerns. And the man who had been thinking about the power of words since he was a college student immediately set about changing the terminology at DHS.
[Senate confirms Alejandro Mayorkas as DHS secretary]
“Words matter,” he says. “We’ve seen that with soaring impact, and we’ve seen it with tremendously damaging impact.” He decreed the department would jettison the term “illegal alien” except when referring to passages in U.S. law that include the term. He set in motion a plan to revise the mission statement of his old agency, USCIS, which had been rewritten by the Trump administration to remove a phrase describing the United States as a “nation of immigrants.”
“Fundamentally, we are a nation of immigrants,” Mayorkas told me in the backyard of his family home. He added — ever seeking to find equilibrium — “and we are a nation of laws.” Even so, some of Mayorkas’s longtime supporters think he’s gone too far on the former at the expense of the latter. “I am very disappointed and totally disgusted with Ali’s actions and statements as DHS secretary — especially in connection with our southern border,” John Orr, a former FBI agent who worked with Mayorkas on cases when he was in the U.S. attorney’s office, says.
DHS does much beyond immigration that Mayorkas considers vital. He’d like to tell the world about it, but the collective attention is mostly elsewhere. He’s been expanding the nation’s cybersecurity ranks, inviting hackers to use their skills to keep us safe at a time when keyboards can be as dangerous as suicide vests. And he’s been endeavoring to ferret out white supremacists and other violent extremists — a small but ascendant subset of the American populace that he describes as our greatest internal terrorism threat.
Mayorkas presides over an absurdly eclectic, illogical agency slapped together amid the fear and rage that followed the September 2001 terrorist attacks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Secret Service? The Coast Guard and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency?
Added to the muddle is Vice President Harris, who has parachuted into the immigration landscape to investigate the root causes of migration at the bidding of the president. It might have been a classic Washington big-footing move if not for Harris seeming to do almost anything she can to stay far, far away from a no-win immigration fight as the ground is laid for her to eventually seek the presidency.
Mayorkas commands only a portion of the system, including U.S. Border Patrol, which is tasked, among other things, with intercepting migrants attempting to illegally enter the country, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers responsible for deportations. But it’s the Department of Justice that runs the courts where more than 1 million immigrants are in deportation proceedings and that also hears some asylum cases. And it’s the Department of Health and Human Services that houses unaccompanied minors, many of whom are teenagers.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has suspended one of the more controversial elements of Trump’s border policy, the “Remain in Mexico” program, which required asylum seekers to await hearings on the Mexico side of the border. Migrant activists blasted the program as cruel because most ended up in squalid camps at risk of violent crime. The Biden administration also announced a 100-day moratorium on deportations, with similar reactions from immigration restrictionists. But the moratorium was blocked by the courts. And the Remain in Mexico decision has been upended by a Supreme Court ruling, forcing the administration to set in motion plans to reinstate a program that Biden has described as inhumane.
[DHS issues new arrest and deportation guidelines to immigration agents]
The administration also has halted construction of miles of border barriers — a substantive and ideological component of Trump’s rise to power that was buoyed by chants of “build that wall” at his campaign rallies, and stoked by his assertion that Mexico was sending drug smugglers and “rapists” to the United States. Even moderate Republicans, such as Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, have chafed at the wall decision. Mayorkas has responded that walls are a bad use of money; investments in border technology are a good use.
Talking about walls not working and canceling Trump-era programs might have been a rallying cry for the administration if not for what happened in Biden’s and Mayorkas’s first months in office. Migrant teenagers and younger children crossed into the country in record numbers, outstripping capacity to house them. Then came a new phase — an explosion of families. By July, the number of migrants detained crested to 200,000 in a single month — the largest figure in more than two decades.
At a time when the new administration was trying to roll out its broader economic, foreign policy and pandemic-response agendas, immigration and the border were dominating the news and becoming a massive political liability. Pick your contributing factors: “They came in at the very beginning and gave some perceptions … that the border was going to be open,” says U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate Texas Democrat who has accused the administration of not doing enough to stem the massive flows of migrants, including those carrying the coronavirus, into his southwestern Texas district.
There are also factors beyond U.S. control, such as agricultural devastation caused by climate change driving subsistence farmers north and unchecked cartel violence forcing villagers to flee their homes. “We cannot enforce our immigration laws in Mexico, and we have very little control over how many people arrive at the border,” Sandweg, the former acting director of ICE, told me.
Ending family separation and detention policies also contributed to the surge, conservatives contend. “The numbers on the border went down because we had … deterrence when families were coming across in large numbers,” says Tom Homan, acting ICE director under Trump who had previously headed the agency’s deportation operations.
The question of who is right can become irrelevant in the cacophonous contest of spin and counterspin. Numbers get tossed around without supporting documentation. Sweeping statements get made.
Morgan, Trump’s former acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, asserts — by extrapolating data from three government agencies, some of which is not readily available to the public — that the “overwhelming majority” of asylum seekers do not complete the full immigration court process. He points to a Justice Department analysis that he interprets to mean 88 percent of asylum seekers simply vanish into the fabric of the country. However, Syracuse University’s immigration tracking system, widely cited by activists, has offered an entirely different picture in recent years, concluding that 85 percent of asylum seekers show up for their court hearings
[Fact checker: How many migrants show up for immigration court hearings?]
Mayorkas is typically hyper-prepared, but in the war of numbers, he gets peppered by members of Congress who come to hearings armed with their own numbers, which can be massaged by both DHS and its opponents to transmit whatever message they want — and he sometimes seems unready to counter. Johnson, the senator from Wisconsin who has become the supreme nemesis of Mayorkas, recently pounded him with what seemed like logical questions: How many migrants who were apprehended this year have been detained, how many have been deported and how many have been released awaiting court dates? Mayorkas didn’t have an answer. “You are in a state of denial!” Johnson told Mayorkas at the hearing.
Customs and Border Protection has reported 1.7 million arrests in the 2021 fiscal year — an all-time record. (That figure includes some migrants who have been detained more than once.) About 60 percent of the apprehensions, according to DHS, have led to removals under Title 42, the same legal provision allowing for rapid expulsion of migrants during a public health emergency that was employed by the Trump administration. (Mayorkas recently said that, while the Biden administration does not “embrace” Title 42, the policy is a health imperative because it resulted from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directive.) A huge number of arrests — nearly 40 percent, amounting to well over 600,000 detainees — have been funneled into the immigration system, according to CBP statistics. Most of those arrested likely were released with notices to appear for immigration court hearings, were ordered to report to ICE for processing, or were unaccompanied minors assigned to U.S.-based housing in advance of being reunited with their families here or returned to their home countries.

It’s a lot to digest, and the numbers change every day as migrants flow in and out of the system. None of it fits neatly into a sound bite. The problem for Mayorkas is that communicating complexity can be nigh impossible in the environment of a committee hearing room (in the neighborhood of 100 committees and subcommittees have oversight of DHS). Mayorkas, for all his ease, instant intimacy and charm in person, can sometimes come off as stilted, monotonal and so granularly detailed that he is almost incomprehensible. He has a fondness for lawyerly terms such as “de minimis.”
Ashdown, who says he has urged DHS staffers to get Mayorkas to loosen up, observes that when Mayorkas is “on TV he looks like he has a stick up his butt. He’s a dynamic, charismatic, amazing dude. But people don’t see that on TV. I think he doesn’t want to mess up.” Mayorkas, he continues, “lives, breathes and dies DHS,” and would see it as below himself “to showboat.”
Recently so many migrants jammed into the Rio Grande Valley that charitable organizations ran out of space to house them. In McAllen, Tex., hundreds of migrants who’d tested positive for the coronavirus were squeezed under tents in a public park. Mayorkas flew to commune with local mayors, who emerged from the meeting appreciative that he’d heard them out, but unsatisfied. “Curtail, stop it, pause, moratorium, whatever you want to call it,” one mayor said. Another declared: “This is a federal issue created by the failed federal policy. They’re expecting us — the smaller communities — to bail them out.”
What Mayorkas is confronting was there long before he arrived. If there’s anything Washington can agree on it’s that the country’s immigration system is and has been broken. Fixing it has become one of the nation’s most nettlesome challenges. Watch eyes roll the next time some politician declares that comprehensive immigration reform is around the corner.
What’s left is a Sisyphean task, except the boulder being pushed up the hill is not just heavy but crumbling in your hands. “I believe in a path to citizenship” for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, given that they have not committed major crimes, Mayorkas told me. “I believe in an enduring solution, a legal solution for the Dreamers. I believe in an enduring legal legislative solution for the farmworkers.” (“Dreamers” is shorthand for people without proper documentation brought to the country as minors who would be given permanent legal status, and eventually citizenship, as well as the right to work under proposed legislation, known as the Dream Act.)
In the meantime, he must manage a system that has none of those things. He’s left with more bad choices. He wants to operate with a kind of discretion not unlike what he wielded as a prosecutor. But discretion can be hard to grasp from the outside.
“If a child sees the mother struggling, the single mother struggling to put food on the table, and decides to steal a loaf of bread, must that child be prosecuted for that theft?” Mayorkas asks, shifting into that philosopher-guru voice of his. “And if somebody says, ‘You know what, I’m going to not prosecute that child … I’m going to teach that child’? Then we take the individual who’s been in this country for 35 years, who’s raised the child, who’s an upstanding member of the community, who’s a beloved neighbor, a fellow parishioner, a contributor to the well-being of the community and been here for 35 years in a completely broken immigration system — must we remove that individual? Or is the question in terms of allocation of resources, evaluation of equities, judicious decision-making? Are we denied the prerogative?” It’s an argument that isn’t condensable. It takes time to develop.
In late September, Mayorkas found himself in another one of those Senate hearings that have become the bane of his existence. Ron Johnson was at him again, projecting that 2.5 million migrants will be freed into the U.S. interior if current trends continue.
“Do you honestly believe our borders are closed?” Johnson said.
“Senator, I do,” Mayorkas responded.
Mayorkas said he wanted to explain his conclusion. He seemed poised to delve into the nuance, the complicated answer, the context, the analysis, the philosophy. But before he could start, Johnson interrupted. Ali Mayorkas was not allowed to finish.
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a feature writer in The Post’s Style section and a former Post bureau chief in Mexico City. Staff writers Nick Miroff and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.


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