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The DHS secretary could chart a new path on immigration. Will he?

Alejandro Mayorkas and the limits of liberal law-and-order immigration politics

Alejandro Mayorkas, President Biden's nominee for secretary of homeland security, testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 19. (Joshua Roberts/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

More than 80 million Americans voted for Joe Biden in November, in part because he promised to end the Trump administration’s war on immigrants.

President Biden has tasked Alejandro Mayorkas, his nominee for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with restoring the United States’ mythical reputation as a welcoming nation.

The president’s pick is both symbolic and practical. Mayorkas, a Cuban refugee whose parents brought him to the United States as a young boy, served as deputy secretary of DHS under President Barack Obama. He helped implement the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

When confirmed by the Senate — the vote is expected Tuesday afternoon — Mayorkas will be the first Latino to head the agency.

But Mayorkas won’t be the first Latino to lead the federal immigration bureaucracy. That distinction goes to Mexican American Leonel Castillo, appointed more than 40 years ago by President Jimmy Carter to serve as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) — later incorporated into DHS.

Castillo’s story illuminates some of the challenges Mayorkas could face when trying to roll back the Trump administration’s draconian immigration policies. It also speaks to the deportation machine’s long, bipartisan history and raises questions about Democrats’ commitment to implementing bold immigration reforms.

The 1970s were a time of growing controversy over immigration. Ongoing U.S. labor demand combined with fewer legal opportunities for Mexicans to enter the country led to a spike in unauthorized migration. This uptick coincided with a series of economic downturns in the United States. A recession in 1970-71, followed by the oil crisis and the subsequent drop in the value of the stock market a few years later, heightened feelings of economic and cultural instability across the country. Another recession in the late 1970s and early 1980s — during which the unemployment rate spiked to 10.8 percent, the highest it had been since the Great Depression — only reinforced such sentiments.

Authorities ramped up immigration enforcement efforts in response. Over the next three decades, deportations averaged nearly 925,000 per year, or more than 2,500 a day. The unprecedented magnitude and regularity of enforcement actions marked a break from the past.

Castillo took the reins at the INS in May 1977, at the dawn of the age of mass expulsion. A 37-year-old former high school football star, Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines and Houston city controller, Castillo brought a public service background to the position. This contrasted with the militarized, enforcement-first approach of his Nixon-appointed predecessor, Gen. Leonard Chapman, who called for a crackdown both at the border and in immigrant communities.

Castillo took a different approach. “We must reconsider our system of justice and not label as criminals those who enter the country illegally to look for work,” he told a Mexican reporter. He instructed INS offices across the country to refer to people as “undocumented workers” or “undocumented immigrants” instead of as “illegal aliens,” and he rebranded INS detention facilities as service-processing centers and equipped them with libraries, televisions and recreation areas.

Castillo’s attempt to restructure the agency led to pushback from the rank and file, ranging from malignant noncompliance to blatant racism.

Border Patrol officers chided the commissioner for being “soft on aliens” and for turning the INS “into a service organization for the illegals.” Officials working under him frequently questioned his orders in hopes of undermining his initiatives.

Some agents openly rebelled against Castillo, and one even referred to him using a derogatory slur for Mexican immigrants. An immigration official in the Washington office had a photo on his desk of the commissioner’s face with a bull’s eye on it. The bulletin board of the El Paso Border Patrol station displayed a cartoon showing sombrero-wearing Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande above which someone scrawled “Castillo’s cousins.”

As Philip Smith, head of INS investigations in Los Angeles, said, many people within the agency “didn’t like the fact that he [Castillo] was Hispanic. They thought it was like putting Al Capone at the head of the FBI.”

Despite this criticism, record-breaking deportations continued unabated during Castillo’s two-year tenure, drawing the ire of Latino groups and immigrant rights activists.

He may have tried to expand the INS’s role as a service provider to the immigrant community, but, as he told a reporter, he still viewed enforcement as a core element of the agency’s mission: “As a government official I am obligated to enforce the law, and this year we will deport more than a million people.”

By 1979, when Castillo resigned as commissioner and returned to Houston to run for mayor, he was under attack from all sides.

Castillo is hardly an outlier as a Democrat who supported strong enforcement measures in recent decades.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton launched Operation Gatekeeper, an unprecedented militarization campaign of the U.S.-Mexico border. Two years later, he signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, broadening the scope of who could be deported and rolling back the rights of people facing expulsion.

During Obama’s first term, federal officials expanded the Secure Communities program, turning local law enforcement officers into de facto immigration agents and resulting in the removal of hundreds of thousands of people — the majority of whom had only minor offenses, such as traffic violations, or no criminal record at all. Secure Communities later played a key role in the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants.

Given this history, a key question looms: How hard will Mayorkas and the Biden administration push on immigration?

The immigration bureaucracy looks much different today from the way it did in the 1970s. Around half of all Border Patrol agents and almost one-third of Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Enforcement and Removal Operations agents are Latino. Still, as the story of Leonel Castillo shows, Mayorkas probably will face internal dissent, based on his perceived liberal politics if not his ethnic identity.

Yet how far Mayorkas is willing to go to change the agency remains unclear. “We are a nation of immigrants and we are also a nation of laws, and I intend to apply the law,” he testified during his Senate confirmation hearing.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to reinvent a long-broken immigration system. But only if it learns lessons from the past, breaks from the liberal law and order status quo and pushes legislators to make amends for the wrongs of previous Democratic and Republican administrations.

As long as deportations remain central to the federal immigration bureaucracy’s mission, the United States cannot claim to be a welcoming nation — no matter which party is in power or who sits at the head of DHS.