The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The family of Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s pick to head DHS, fled the Nazis and then Cuba before arriving in the United States

Alejandro Mayorkas onstage during President- elect Joe Biden’s introduction of his Cabinet nominees in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 24. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The Department of Homeland Security was bracing for another border crisis in the summer of 2015 when deputy secretary Alejandro Mayorkas convened a meeting of top officials at DHS headquarters in Northwest Washington.

A federal judge had told the department it could no longer hold minors who arrive with their parents for extended periods in immigration jails. The decision meant most adults crossing the border with children could avoid detention and rapid deportation. The Obama administration, still reeling from the 2014 border surge, worried about an even larger influx of Central American families.

One official at the table, Tom Homan, proposed “administrative separation,” according to two of the meeting’s attendees. The government would jail the parents and send their children to shelters.

Mayorkas — who goes by Ali — shot it down. “We’re not doing that,” he said flatly, almost as soon as Homan finished speaking, the attendees said, discussing the matter on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.

“Ali just dismissed it out of hand,” said one of the people at the meeting. “It was never even remotely considered.”

The family separation idea went into a drawer, but it came back two years later as the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. By then Homan was running Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Mayorkas had left the government. Border agents took more than 3,000 children from their parents in what became a debacle for DHS and a moral outrage to the wider public.

Mayorkas declined to be interviewed for this article. Homan, who became one of President Trump’s most gung-ho enforcers before he retired in 2018, said he did not remember the 2015 meeting at which Mayorkas balked at family separations. Homan said he remembered many meetings about border issues and confirmed that he floated the idea of family separation. Others disagreed, Homan said, and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson ultimately shelved the proposal.

Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ border policy was pushed aggressively by Jeff Sessions, despite warnings, Justice Dept. review finds

That Mayorkas refused to even consider the separation policy is a measure, his supporters say, of the moral compass he would bring to U.S. immigration enforcement if confirmed as President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to run DHS. Biden has pledged a more humane, welcoming approach to asylum seekers and immigrants, as well as the speedy reversal of Trump’s hard-line policies, and he will need an experienced operator capable of doing both.

Yet the migration pressures Mayorkas faced in 2015 have not gone away, and if anything, they have deepened under Trump. Millions of Central Americans would like to come to the United States — for safe refuge, economic opportunity or to unite with relatives already here. And the latest immigration statistics show that migrants who arrive with children or as a family group are shielded from deportation and have a much greater chance of being allowed to stay while making humanitarian claims.

Mayorkas, and the Biden administration, will have to figure out how to undo Trump’s immigration policies rapidly enough to satisfy core Democratic supporters, but not so quickly that they trigger a new migration surge and lose control of the border.

Biden says he’ll reverse Trump immigration policies but wants ‘guardrails’ first

Former colleagues describe Mayorkas as the person best prepared for this balancing act. Mayorkas, 61, is a former federal prosecutor, not a liberal activist, but he brings a deep sympathy for immigrants rooted in his own family’s extraordinary journey to the United States, his backers say. He would be the first Latino, and first immigrant, in charge of DHS, the sprawling domestic security agency created after the 9/11 attacks to combat terrorism, safeguard ports and borders, and enforce immigration laws inside the United States.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled Mayorkas’s first confirmation hearing for Tuesday. Four former DHS secretaries made a bipartisan endorsement in an op-ed last week urging his confirmation as soon as possible.

“The president-elect could not have found a more qualified person to be the next homeland security secretary,” wrote Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, Janet Napolitano and Johnson. “Mayorkas needs no on-the-job training and will be prepared to lead DHS on Day 1.”

On Thursday, 85 former U.S. attorneys and senior Justice Department officials, who worked with Mayorkas and served both parties, wrote senators to “wholeheartedly and unequivocally support Ali’s nomination” and urge his swift confirmation.

Enforcer and humanitarian

If confirmed, Mayorkas would become the chief enforcer of a U.S. immigration system that provided refuge to his own family six decades earlier. Born in Cuba to Jewish parents and a mother who escaped the Holocaust, Mayorkas was raised in Southern California, painfully aware of the losses undergirding his family’s American success story.

Through his Romanian-born mother, whose relatives were murdered by the Nazis, Mayorkas discovered the horrors that can unfold when refugees cannot flee to safety, friends and former colleagues say. Through his Cuban-born father, he learned someone can love a country and still feel compelled to leave it forever. And his own experience navigating DHS taught him there will be difficult decisions ahead — some migrants will be allowed to stay in the United States, and some will be deported to the nations they left.

With Democrats in control of the Senate after Jan. 20, his confirmation appears all but assured, though it’s unclear whether he will be able to win the backing of moderate Republicans. He did not earn a single GOP vote in 2013 when he was confirmed as deputy secretary.

Homan said Mayorkas was the type of manager who wanted to hear an array of policy options, and to consider the impact they might have on migration flows, officer morale and operations. “If he leads the way he led before, he’s going to listen to both sides,” Homan said. “Me and Ali didn’t always agree on immigration, but he listened. Ali’s a great American. He loves this country.”

Immigrant advocacy groups were quick to praise Biden when he picked Mayorkas. But some advocates lashed out at the president-elect late last month when he walked back promises to immediately reverse Trump’s policies, citing a need to avoid triggering a crisis with “2 million people on our border.”

Biden’s policies on immigration

One former Mayorkas colleague, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer candor, said liberal Democrats are likely to be disappointed if they expect Mayorkas to bring radical change.

“Ali is very conservative, in the traditional sense of the word,” the former colleague said.

Gil Kerlikowske, the former U.S. Customs and Border Protection chief who worked closely with Mayorkas during Obama’s second term, described his former colleague as an enforcer with a more humanitarian sensibility.

“You can enforce the law in an empathetic and sympathetic matter,” he said. “Yes, the law is the law, and you have to enforce it, but it’s also a matter of how it is done.”

An 'idyllic' home in Cuba

Anita Gabor, Mayorkas’s late mother, was a refugee twice.

Her family fled from Romania to France with the rise of fascism, and eventually made it to Cuba. Her paternal grandparents and seven uncles were killed in the Holocaust. Seeking refuge in the United States was not an option: In 1939, the U.S. government had turned back the SS St. Louis, a ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees, forcing them to return to Europe. More than 250 died, many in Nazi death camps.

Cuba had also rejected the St. Louis, but the Gabors were allowed to emigrate there soon after as restrictions eased.

A bright and warm woman who spoke five languages, Anita met Charles R. “Nicky” Mayorkas at a party in Havana. Both were Jewish and their parents’ only children.

Nicky was the fun-loving, gregarious son of Turkish and Polish immigrants who moved to the Caribbean island after World War I, seeking a better life. He studied at Ruston Academy, an elite American school in Havana, and unlike Anita, had traveled with ease to the United States all his life.

Nicky’s parents had relatives in Los Angeles and New York City; he spent many summers with his great-uncle Charlie, a well-known rug merchant in Manhattan, and later studied economics at Dartmouth College, then an all-male Ivy League school, according to his 1951 class yearbook.

When he married Anita, the couple honeymooned in Niagara Falls.

But Cuba was home. Nicky operated a steel-wool factory on the outskirts of Havana and lived in a new condo building in the city’s upscale Miramar neighborhood with his in-laws, a few blocks away from his own parents. The couple had a daughter, Cathy, in 1957, and Ali was born in 1959, the year Fidel Castro took power.

Nicky considered life there “idyllic,” according to Dartmouth’s alumni magazine, and never imagined leaving the island forever.

But by 1960, with Castro hurtling toward confrontation with the United States and an embrace of Soviet-style communism, the Mayorkas family fled, along with much of Cuba’s wealthy and middle classes.

Nicky and Anita moved to Miami with their two children, arriving on tourist visas on Aug. 21, 1960. Anita’s parents, Michael and Charlotte Gabor, followed one month later.

But Nicky’s own parents — Moises and Jane — stayed behind in Havana; Jane was dying of cancer.

Nicky shuttled back and forth to Cuba to see her, growing increasingly fearful of being detained. He wasn’t there when his mother died in February 1961, a month after the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with the Castro government. He never went back.

Beverly Hills 90211

Hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees settled in tropical South Florida, barely 100 miles from the island they had fled. But the Mayorkases headed west to Southern California, where a cousin on Nicky’s mother’s side had offered him a job as the bookkeeper of a textile company.

Jonathan Band, a Washington copyright lawyer who was a childhood friend of Ali Mayorkas, said Beverly Hills was a far cry from the glitzy stereotype later popularized on television shows such as “Beverly Hills 90210.”

Kids rode their bicycles down Rodeo Drive, stopped for five-cent ice cream cones at Thrifty Drug Store, and attended bar mitzvahs at restaurants such as the Fish Shanty, which had a yawning whale’s mouth as a front door.

“It definitely wasn’t like ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians,’ ” he said. “We lived in 90211 — 90211 is very different from 90210.”

Mayorkas’s family rented an apartment in a working-class neighborhood dotted with palm and sycamore trees and populated by mostly liberal Jewish families working two or three jobs so their children could attend some of the nation’s top schools. Later they bought a modest house with a Spanish-tile roof and a postage-stamp lawn. Band described the neighborhood as an “immigration population totally focused on education.”

Mayorkas graduated with distinction from the University of California at Berkeley, and then from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Four years later he went to work at the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, one of the Justice Department’s largest districts.

Mayorkas had no trial experience, but his “love of country” impressed then-U.S. Attorney Robert Bonner, a Republican appointee. Bonner said Mayorkas seemed keenly aware of what the United States had done for him and his family.

“He had a profound commitment to wanting to serve his country,” Bonner said.

Mayorkas went on to become one of the best trial lawyers in the office, Bonner said, prosecuting high-profile cases such as money laundering and the tax-evasion trial of Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss. (Bonner, by then in private practice, was her attorney).

President Bill Clinton nominated Mayorkas to serve as U.S. attorney, a rare promotion from within the ranks that elevated his profile on the national stage. Los Angeles Magazine dubbed him the “enforcer” in a 2000 profile. But the piece drew a hard line between Mayorkas and former U.S. attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, now one of Trump’s personal lawyers.

If Giuliani had been “the epitome of the hard-ass, it’s-all-about-me-call-the-press-’cause-I’m-gonna-slap-the-cuffs-on-a-Wall-Street-crook lawyer-cum-politician,” journalist Ross Johnson wrote, then Mayorkas was his antithesis — a 5-foot-7, smooth-voiced empath who emphasized prosecutorial restraint.

“My mission is to ensure justice is done, and part of my job is knowing when not to prosecute,” Mayorkas told the magazine.

But Mayorkas landed in trouble when he and other Los Angeles figures contacted the White House about the prison sentence of Carlos Vignali Jr., the son of a wealthy Democratic donor who was convicted of trafficking hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Los Angeles to Minnesota. Clinton later commuted Vignali’s 15-year sentence.

Mayorkas has since apologized and called his phone call to the White House a “mistake.” He said he was just asking about the case, not trying to advocate for Vignali.

Obama's DHS

Mayorkas left the U.S. attorney’s office in 2001 when President George W. Bush took office and spent the Bush years working in private practice. President Barack Obama nominated him in 2009 to head U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that runs the nation’s legal immigration system, and he was confirmed unanimously.

At his confirmation hearing, Mayorkas said creating naturalized citizens like himself was the agency’s most important duty. But he said protecting national security was “critical,” winning praise from then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama and an immigration hawk who, nearly a decade later, would lead Trump’s efforts to terminate legal status for undocumented immigrants known as dreamers, who were brought to the United States as children, and separate migrant families at the southern border.

Sessions told Mayorkas at the hearing that he had “good instincts” and appeared “committed to the rule of law.”

Mayorkas served in the top job at USCIS during Obama’s first term, winning praise for creating and quickly rolling out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), elevating a fraud-detection unit, and promoting U.S. citizenship.

He stumbled into scandal, too. The DHS inspector general led an investigation into claims that Mayorkas intervened in a visa program for wealthy foreign investors at the request of some politically connected Democrats and found that it created the appearance of “special access.”

Three projects were headed for rejection until Mayorkas intervened, the IG found: a Las Vegas casino championed by then-Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.); a Los Angeles film project involving former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell; and an electric car manufacturing company then led by Hillary Clinton’s brother Anthony Rodham and Terry McAuliffe, who would go on to become governor of Virginia.

Inspector General John Roth, an Obama appointee, found in his 2015 report that Mayorkas did not break any laws but that his actions looked bad and troubled many of his colleagues. “We found that employees’ belief that Mr. Mayorkas favored certain politically powerful . . . stakeholders was reasonable,” the report said.

In his defense, Mayorkas said he was trying to fix a “badly broken” program. “While I disagree with the Inspector General’s report, I will certainly learn from it and from this process,” he said in a 2015 statement.

The episode cast a shadow on Mayorkas’s ascent to deputy secretary. Republicans boycotted his confirmation hearing and voted against him on the Senate floor. Some are resurrecting the issue ahead of his Senate hearing on Tuesday.

Dan Lips, a former GOP staffer on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the partisan rift over Mayorkas’s nomination has never healed. “His actions at Citizenship and Immigration Services raise serious questions about his suitability to lead the department,” Lips said.

But Keith Ashdown, also a former Republican staffer on the same committee, urged GOP senators to give Mayorkas a chance, saying he has deep experience at DHS, a firm command of the issues and the grace to communicate with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“He was the best deputy secretary the department ever had,” said Ashdown, who was staff director during Mayorkas’s nomination for the No. 2 job.

“He’s the little train that could. He never stops. He’s fantastic.”

A life interrupted

The largest Jewish cemetery in Cuba is on the outskirts of Havana, a forlorn site on a windswept hill near the old colonial settlement of Guanabacoa. The cemetery gate was locked on a recent afternoon, but neighbors summoned a custodian living across the street who put on a shirt and arrived with a key.

Built in 1910, the cemetery has about 2,400 gravesites, and it remains a symbol of a community’s life interrupted by Castro’s revolution. A large, grassy section is today empty and overgrown, with space for many more burials. There are only one or two a year nowadays, the custodian said.

Some of the cemetery’s most prominent marble headstones and family tombs are located along a central artery. One large monolith there reads “MAYORKAS” in block letters.

Jane Mayorkas, the grandmother who died of cancer in 1961, is buried there, along with a cousin, but the space in the center of the vault is unmarked and empty. It was meant to be a final resting place for other members of the family.

Ali Mayorkas visited the cemetery in 2015, after Obama restored diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. He was the highest-ranking Cuban American member of the Obama administration and traveled with Kerlikowske for talks on security and immigration matters. He arrived “with a nervous heart,” he told The Post at the time.

Mayorkas also stopped by the apartment building where he lived as a baby, and the sites of his father’s old school and former steel-wool factory. But it was the Jewish cemetery that affected him the most, he told colleagues, knowing that his father, Nicky, had never returned to see his own mother’s grave.

In weatherworn letters, an inscription written in English on the tomb is now barely legible. “In memory of Jane Mayorkas, beloved and devoted wife and mother,” it reads.

After his visit, Mayorkas asked if he could get the lettering fixed and restored. He was told it wasn’t possible.