Biden’s DHS pick vows to make employee morale his ‘highest priority’

Alejandro Mayorkas, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security, has promised to equip the employees of the government’s third-largest agency with the tools they need to succeed on the job.

The department, which is juggling a global pandemic, a major cybersecurity attack and security threats ahead of Wednesday’s Inauguration, hasn’t had a permanent secretary in nearly two years. Vacancies have plagued other top leadership positions at DHS for the last several years.

“If indeed I have the privilege of serving as the secretary of Homeland Security, I will make the wellbeing and morale of the brave and noble men and women of the department my highest priority,” Mayorkas said Tuesday morning at his nomination hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Mayorkas was the no. 2 leader at the department for much of President Barack Obama’s second term, where he led efforts to boost employee engagement at DHS. The department escaped a six-year slump and improved engagement scores back in 2016, the last year of Mayorkas’ tenure.

“We focused on equipping the workforce with the tools they needed to perform their jobs ably and in a manner which they could be proud of,” he said. “We created opportunities for them to advance in their careers and fulfill their highest ambitions.”

Despite efforts by DHS leadership under the Obama and Trump administrations to improve DHS morale over the years, the department still ranks last in employee job satisfaction among large cabinet agencies.

Throughout his nomination hearing, Mayorkas described DHS as a department of partnerships and vowed to improve collaboration between the agency and the private sector.

He promised to protect whistleblowers, respond to congressional oversight requests and respect the role of the inspector general.

He said he didn’t support efforts to defund Immigration and Customs Enforcement and planned to study the subcomponent’s current resources and how effectively it uses them.

On the issue of cybersecurity, Mayorkas said DHS “needed to lead by example” in improving its own cyber posture. He said he was heartened to see Congress had approved the creation of a White House cyber coordinator and promised to examine whether the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency had a properly focused mission and resources.

“CISA must improve the cyber hygiene of the federal government and the many department and agencies throughout it,” Mayorkas said. “It must strengthen the public-private partnership, not only for the benefit, of course, of the federal government, but for the benefit of the private sector itself.”

When asked about protecting DHS law enforcement officers from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he reiterated his pledge to protect the health and safety of the department’s employees but didn’t offer many specifics.

Most committee members seemed relatively receptive to his responses.

But several Republicans questioned Mayorkas about a 2013 report from the DHS inspector general, which questioned his role in speeding up the visa approval process on behalf of three foreign investors during his tenure as the leader of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The cases involved prominent Democrats, and the IG said Mayorkas “created the appearance of favoritism.”

Mayorkas defended his actions at USCIS. He said he involved himself in many cases at the request of Democrats and Republicans when they were bogged down in the bureaucratic process. He did, however, decline requests to intervene in other cases where he didn’t think it would be appropriate.

“You can ask the thousands of people who have worked with me over my career about how I have conducted myself and I’m very proud of that fact,” Mayorkas said. “The fact is that’s my greatest source of pride, the dignity and respect with which I have treated others. As the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as I mentioned before, I fixed problems. Sometimes fixing problems means making improvements. Sometimes making improvements means making change, and some people aren’t happy with change.”

The Senate has previously confirmed Mayorkas on three separate occasions as a U.S. attorney, USCIS director and DHS deputy secretary. His last confirmation vote in 2014 fell along party lines.

Democrats are anxious to confirm Mayorkas for a fourth time.

“Once confirmed you will have a daunting job ahead of you, but you are a qualified and experienced leader,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the committee’s top Democrat, said of Mayorkas. “There’s no question we need strong and stable leadership in the Department of Homeland Security more than ever. Over the last four years the department has endured some chaos, mismanagement and instability.”

In a statement released after Tuesday’s hearing, Peters urged his colleagues to quickly vote Wednesday on Mayorkas’ nomination.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has previously convened on Inauguration Day to vote on the nominations for the prior two DHS secretaries, John Kelly and Janet Napolitano.

“He understands the challenges,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said of Mayorkas. “He understands it’s going to take a lot of work. He understands we’re going to have to bring people together, and he understands that this is a 24/7 job. I would hope this committee would pass [Mayorkas] out and get him to the Senate floor so we can get him confirmed. Honestly after the events on Jan. 6, we have no time to waste.”

But committee member Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) dashed Democrats’ hopes for a quick confirmation and announced his plans to place a hold on Mayorkas’ nomination.

“I cannot consent to skip the standard vetting process and fast-track this nomination when so many questions remain unanswered,” Hawley said Wednesday afternoon in a statement.

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