Originally Published in USA Today
Rick Jervis - February 5, 2021
After a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in crowded Paris cafes and restaurants in November 2015 left 130 people dead, some members of Congress threatened to shut down the U.S. refugee program.
Alejandro "Ali" Mayorkas, then deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, sprang into action. He and other staffers manned the phones, calling individual members of Congress, pointing out the program's value and security features, explaining that most of the Paris attackers were not refugees. It was a Herculean, round-the-clock effort, for three days straight.
It worked. The push to remove the program fizzled.
“There are refugees who live in the United States right now because Ali Mayorkas helped save the program,” said Alexandra Veitch, who at the time worked at the White House's Office of Legislative Affairs and collaborated with Mayorkas.
The effort illustrates the many traits former colleagues and staffers say Mayorkas possesses: Tough, hard-working, persuasive, personally invested in issues and owning an inherent empathy for the plight of refugees.
Mayorkas, 61, this week became the first Latino and immigrant to head the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a sprawling department of 240,000 employees ranging from Border Patrol agents to cybersecurity analysts. Mayorkas, who emigrated from Cuba with his parents as an infant, will take over a department roiled by constant leadership turnover under the previous Trump administration and gripped by low morale. He’s the first Senate-confirmed head of DHS since April 2019, when Kirstjen Nielsen resigned from the post.
He's tasked with untangling the path to this country for thousands of refugees and would-be immigrants after four years of tough-on-immigration policies that saw children separated from their families and kept in cells, asylum seekers quickly deported and migrants from Muslim-majority nations banned. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden said he would find a path to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, an unprecedented task now on Mayorkas' to-do list.