Since being folded into DHS, the agencies have lost sight of their role to ensure our immigration system is harnessed to attract new talent and ideas.
by Benjamin Johnson
The incoming administration’s motto “Build Back Better” is more than a clever alliteration, it’s a directive for every cabinet secretary and incoming employee. When it comes to the Department of Homeland Security and its many immigration agencies this will require setting a new tone and agenda that begins to change their ethos from one that treats immigrants as a threat to one that understands the power and potential of being a nation that welcomes newcomers.
One of the unfortunate and enduring legacies of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security was the consolidation of benefits agencies like U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) under the same umbrella with law enforcement agencies. Thus, the tools of enforcement and security have become so dominant that almost everything in the department’s vast network of agencies and responsibilities is seen through that narrow enforcement and security lens.
Since being folded into DHS, the agencies have lost sight of their role to ensure our immigration system is harnessed to attract new talent and ideas, as well as to protect those seeking safety and protection. Instead, immigration policy has literally and figuratively become about building walls and deterring people from migrating to America.
Immigration agencies whose primary functions are the administration of benefits like providing visas, granting naturalizations, unifying families, or granting asylum have been transformed into immigration enforcement agencies. This is a deep perversion of their purpose.
Managing this shift will require expert leadership, and President-elect Biden’s nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas to lead the Department of Homeland Security offers a chance for change. His personal and professional life experiences provide him with a depth of understanding about how these agencies should work.
As a former U.S. Attorney and Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, he understands the tools of enforcement. But, as the child of a Holocaust survivor, whose family fled Cuba when he was a boy, he also understands the transformative power of America’s immigration system and what it means to become a naturalized American citizen. He led USCIS with a respect for the agency’s mandate to efficiently and fairly serve those who are applying for immigration benefits. His implementation and management of the DACA program was remarkable for its efficiency and integrity.
Mayorkas has shown an ability to strike a balance between enforcement and generosity. Those who would oppose his nomination or the nomination of other incoming administration officials for pursuing policies that welcome people into the country are clearly stuck in an old isolationist mindset on immigration that is an affront to America’s history as a nation that welcomes people not only for their safety, protection, and benefit, but for our own benefit as well.
The underlying restrictionist bias that has plagued the immigration agencies has gone on for far too long. It has obscured the fact that immigration is a benefit to American society, culture, and economy. The focus on enforcement has also blinded the agency to more effective ways to address the root causes of many of the problems that we face in the immigration system today. In fact, this enforcement bias was the cause of the horrific separation of families and is the reason that we have a humanitarian crisis at our southern border.
Immigration advocates and lawyers had their disagreements with Mayorkas during his previous tenure, but they respected his transparency, his willingness to listen, and the decisiveness of his leadership. It stands in marked contrast to the last four years of a revolving door of leadership by appointees who put the whims and personal interests of the White House above the safety of our country and the integrity of our immigration system. Mayorkas’s nomination offers a chance to set the department on a path out of that chaos and signals an important change to come in the culture of the immigration agencies.
Benjamin Johnson serves as executive director for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.