The Trials of Alejandro Mayorkas

In early December, 2src2src, Alejandro Mayorkas was called to Wilmington, Delaware, for a meeting with Joe Biden. The President-elect was choosing his Cabinet, and Mayorkas, whom Biden knew personally, had the sort of résumé that made him an obvious contender for a top role in the new Administration. Then a partner at WilmerHale, an élite

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In early December, 2src2src, Alejandro Mayorkas was called to Wilmington, Delaware, for a meeting with Joe Biden. The President-elect was choosing his Cabinet, and Mayorkas, whom Biden knew personally, had the sort of résumé that made him an obvious contender for a top role in the new Administration. Then a partner at WilmerHale, an élite white-shoe law firm in Washington, D.C., he had been a U.S. Attorney under Bill Clinton and Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security under Barack Obama. Now Biden wanted to discuss Mayorkas’s interest in running D.H.S. During their conversation, which lasted ninety minutes, Biden kept returning to the same question: “Are you sure you want do this?”

D.H.S. has a sprawling portfolio, with two hundred and sixty thousand employees spread across two dozen agencies, including the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and a cybersecurity division. But the department is best known for presiding over what some have called the third rail of American politics: the country’s immigration system, which was last reformed in 199src and has been in a state of disrepair for decades. “I’ve seen it,” Mayorkas told Biden. “I’ve been up close. I know what I’m getting into.”

Mayorkas made history twice when he was confirmed as D.H.S. Secretary, the following February. Born in Cuba and raised in Los Angeles, he became the first immigrant ever to head the department. He is also D.H.S.’s first homegrown leader; typically, secretaries have burnished their standing elsewhere in government or in public life. Marielena Hincapié, a former director of the National Immigration Law Center, told me, “Immigration was going to be front and center whether Biden wanted it to be or not. How would Democrats be able to present a different vision, and to talk about it? They had someone in Mayorkas.”

In the three years since, with record numbers of migrants arriving at the border, Mayorkas has had to testify before Congress twenty-seven times, far more than any other Cabinet member. “Get the popcorn,” Mark Green, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told a group of conservative donors last spring, before one of the hearings. “It’s going to be fun.” He went on to accuse Mayorkas of the “intentional destruction of our country through the open southern border.” Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the homeland-security adviser at the White House, told me that Mayorkas “did not anticipate, as none of us could have anticipated, how savage the attacks would be personally.”

On a cold, clear morning last month, I sat down with Mayorkas in his office, at the department’s headquarters, in southeast Washington, a sprawling campus of brick and glass buildings that was once the site of a mental hospital. Hours earlier, Republicans had announced plans to impeach him, claiming only that he had “refused to comply with Federal immigration laws.” In private, Mayorkas—who is short, fit, and bald, with bushy eyebrows and a cadet’s ramrod posture—is ironic, sharp-witted, and charismatic, a raconteur who leaps out of his seat to exaggerate a detail or deliver a punch line. In public, he tends to speak with dignified aloofness, saying less than he knows, while making you understand that he’d like to tell you more. “I’m in disbelief, just frankly,” he told me. “As someone who has spent twenty years in government, twelve years of which were spent as a federal prosecutor, the accusation that I’ve intentionally chosen not to enforce the laws is beyond the pale.”

Recently, while Mayorkas was having dinner with family at a restaurant in California, another diner—a white retiree in a blazer—flipped him off. When Mayorkas discreetly asked the man to stop, the man yelled, “You piece of shit!” It was the latest in a series of unnerving incidents. In late 2src21, a group of left-wing protesters, accusing the Biden Administration of continuing Donald Trump’s immigration policies, parked themselves in front of Mayorkas’s house, in Washington. They hung a giant sign made of Mylar blankets, banged drums, and accosted Mayorkas’s wife as she came and went. Still, during our conversations this past December and January, as political pressure mounted, Mayorkas routinely told me that he wouldn’t “sink” to the level of his detractors. Fighting back would only “feed the beast,” he said. Instead, he passed me an Op-Ed that he’d clipped from the Times, written by a clinical psychologist, called “Finding Brightness in Winter.” It contained the line “The despair I feel about the world would ruin me if I did not know how to find light.”

On February 6th, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives held a vote to impeach Mayorkas—the first time Congress had attempted to charge a Cabinet secretary since 1876. Every Democrat in the chamber, along with three Republicans, opposed the resolution, but they were still short a vote. At around 6:5src P.M., Al Green, a seventy-six-year-old Democrat from Texas, was wheeled into the chamber wearing a gown and socks. He’d come from the hospital, where he was recovering after surgery on a blocked intestine. “I believe him to be a good, decent man,” he said of Mayorkas. “I don’t want his reputation to be besmirched.” The Republicans were stuck. With the vote now tied, at two hundred and fifteen, they needed all their members to be present to pass the resolution, but one was missing: Steve Scalise, the House Majority Leader, who has blood cancer, was back in his district, in Louisiana, recovering from a stem-cell transplant.

At the House dais, Speaker Mike Johnson held the gavel, looking stricken. Several Republicans swarmed a member of their party who’d voted against impeachment, trying to pressure him to switch sides. “Order! Order!” the Democrats yelled. A little before seven o’clock, Johnson conceded defeat. Standing off to the side was Mark Green, of the Homeland Security Committee, who, hours earlier, had described Mayorkas as a “reptile with no balls.” The failed impeachment “frustrated” him, he said. “But we’ll see it back again.”

“I’ll be your waiter tonight, because you left your back door open, and I really need the tips.”

Cartoon by Avi Steinberg

That morning, Mayorkas had awoken to an otherwise typical day. There’d been a “morning huddle” at headquarters, in Washington, followed by a session in a secure location, where he received the President’s Daily Brief. Later that day, he was in a boardroom in Mountain View, California, meeting with a Silicon Valley executive about artificial intelligence. A staffer summoned him for a phone call. “O.K., thanks,” the Secretary said flatly, upon hearing the news of the vote. His face betrayed no emotion. He handed the phone back and, closing the door to the boardroom, resumed the meeting.

For months, Mayorkas had been waking up at around three o’clock in the morning and, with a pen and pad, jotting down notes in a neat hand: policy ideas, thoughts for a memo, tasks to look into. The magnitude of his responsibility weighed on him constantly. Some D.H.S. employees call him the Patron Saint of Paid Leave, because he’s scrupulous about awarding overtime pay and boosting workforce morale.

Lately, the main cause of his sleeplessness had been the border. The country was in what he called a “threshold moment.” The U.S. Border Patrol was apprehending some ten thousand migrants a day, many of whom were being released into the country because the government had nowhere to detain them and not enough staff to process them. D.H.S. was short on money and personnel. Last year, the department was authorized to hire three hundred Border Patrol agents, but that was the first time the agency had been “plussed up” since 2src11, Mayorkas told me.

One evening in late December, Mayorkas and I were sitting at an Italian restaurant near the White House. Some ports of entry in Arizona and California had just been closed because border agents were being reassigned to deal with influxes of migrants. The governor of Arizona, a Democrat, was calling for the deployment of the National Guard to address the “unmitigated humanitarian crisis.” When the waiter arrived with a cocktail, Mayorkas asked her if she wouldn’t mind pouring it on his head. “People are always asking about the border numbers,” he told me. “They say, ‘We have to get the numbers back to where they were ten years ago.’ But migration is a function of the world’s conditions.”

Contending with a border crisis has become a political rite of passage for American Presidents. Obama dealt with one in 2src14; Trump had his in 2src19. But the current moment is unique. In the past, authorities were overwhelmed by migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Central Americans, however, no longer make up the majority of border crossers—their numbers, though still large, have been eclipsed by arrivals from South America, Asia, and Africa. Until very recently, the Darién Gap, a treacherous stretch of jungle that straddles Colombia and Panama, served as a natural buffer limiting migration from South America. Only eleven thousand people, on average, crossed it each year. In 2src23, five hundred thousand made the journey. A decade ago, Mayorkas pointed out, “a third of the Venezuelan population wasn’t seeking refuge in multiple countries.”

The U.S. immigration system encompasses far more than securing the two thousand miles of border separating the country from Mexico, and, under other circumstances, the Administration’s track record might have earned it plaudits. Legal immigration is now higher than it was before the Trump Presidency. The refugee system, which was hobbled by Trump, is on pace to resettle more people this year than at any time in the past three decades. Away from the border, immigration arrests that result in deportations are also down, in part because of a series of directives from Mayorkas that have emphasized discretion. “You don’t hear about ICE picking up grandmothers,” he told me. “Even during Obama, that was a huge issue. We have changed the landscape.”

But Biden has seemed reluctant to tout these successes. As one White House refrain goes, a good day for the President is one when immigration isn’t in the news. A former senior D.H.S. official said that the Administration “looks at the polling numbers and CNN, and that does not make their heart sing. They hated the border issue. They wanted to thrust it away.” According to someone close to Mayorkas, Biden would “blanch” whenever he saw his D.H.S. Secretary. (A White House spokesperson said, “This is false. The President and the Secretary have a good relationship.”)

Most of the new arrivals to the U.S. are seeking asylum, but few of them qualify. Eligibility depends on strict types of identity-based persecution, related to someone’s religion, political beliefs, or race, among other factors. But, because Congress has failed to open other channels for legal immigration, travelling to the U.S.-Mexico border and claiming asylum has become a migrant’s best shot at entering the country. Mayorkas, who for much of his career has defended asylum, is now in the uncomfortable position of conceding that the system no longer works. “Ten thousand people at the border in one day is not an asylum system,” he told me.

As a result of the dysfunction, Mayorkas has had to implement orders from the White House, using immigration agencies that are effectively performing triage at the border. “He’s a man out on an island,” Jason Houser, a former chief of staff at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told me. “He is left alone to handle all problems until it’s a political problem, and then he’s told what to do.” Mayorkas seems to embrace the role of martyr. At one point, I asked him if the Administration might benefit from having an “immigration czar,” someone who could oversee the issue for all government departments, not just D.H.S. “It’s on me,” he said. “It’s not pleasant, but I can take it. I don’t need to ask someone else to take the heat off.”

In December, a bipartisan group of senators began meeting in a room on the second floor of the Capitol. It was the same room where four Democrats and four Republicans—the so-called Gang of Eight—had negotiated the terms of a comprehensive immigration-reform bill. That deal, which passed the Senate in 2src13 but eventually died in the Republican-led House, would have provided a path to citizenship for the roughly eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. in exchange for harsher enforcement measures at the border. The current talks were built around a far narrower framework: House Republicans were withholding from the White House increased border funding and continued military aid to Ukraine in exchange for new restrictions on the asylum system. Mayorkas was on hand to answer questions about what was and wasn’t feasible. Jonathan Davidson, his chief of staff, told me, “When the ‘too complicated’ drawer gets filled up, they take it out and bring it to the Secretary.”

What did it mean for Mayorkas, as a “technical adviser” in bipartisan talks, to point everyone toward a mutual understanding? “You need to embrace the absence of a center,” he told me. Last year, House Republicans passed a bill mandating that the government detain all families crossing the border unlawfully and reinstate Trump’s immigration policies (including those blocked by the courts). Democrats were too divided on immigration to coalesce around a bill of their own, let alone to pass one. Mayorkas told me that members of Congress have come to him requesting “a seat at the table.” He reminds them, “A seat at the table means compromise.”

As House Republicans were preparing to impeach Mayorkas, Senate Republicans involved in the immigration talks, including James Lankford, of Oklahoma, their lead negotiator, were calling him for advice. When asked in early January about impeachment, Lankford told reporters, “You can swap secretaries, but the policies are going to be the same.” Other Republicans worked with Mayorkas behind closed doors but attacked him before the cameras. I was with Mayorkas when he received a voice mail from one of them. Mayorkas wouldn’t tell me who. “He was just calling to check up on me,” he said. “To see how I was doing.”

On the wall of Mayorkas’s office is a photograph of his late parents at a garden party. His mother stands in the foreground, gazing at the camera. His father, wearing a tan suit, is laughing in the background. The two of them, both Jewish and both only children, met in Havana in the early nineteen-fifties. Mayorkas’s father, Charles, who was known as Nicky, was the son of Turkish and Polish immigrants who left Europe after the First World War. Mayorkas’s mother, Anita Gabor, was Romanian, and had lost two grandparents and seven uncles in the Holocaust. She arrived in Cuba after her family fled to France during the rise of the Nazis.

Mayorkas, the second of Nicky and Anita’s four children, was born in 1959, the year Fidel Castro came to power. Nicky ran a steel-wool factory, and the family lived in a condominium in an upscale neighborhood. “He loved Cuba and the life there,” Mayorkas said of his father. But, in 196src, his parents, fearful of the rise of a Communist dictator, joined an exodus of the middle and upper classes. They landed in Miami, then settled in Los Angeles, where Nicky worked as a comptroller for a textile manufacturer. Mayorkas remembers him leaving the house each morning at five, returning home for dinner with the family, taking a short nap, and then getting back to work. “He was just exhausted,” Mayorkas said. One reason he keeps the photograph in his office is that it captured his father in a rare moment of levity. “He did not manage up,” Mayorkas told me. “My mother would say, ‘Do you have to disagree all the time?’ ”

As a boy, Mayorkas joked with his mother that he would one day write a sitcom about “how our family wasn’t like the other families.” They blended Cuban and Central European traditions—paella and potato soups, conversations in Spanish, English, and Romanian. Anita spoke five languages and read widely. “You’d walk into our living room and to the left was a collection of books about antisemitism,” Mayorkas said. “The fragility of life as a Jewish person was something extraordinarily present in our home.” His mother inculcated in him a reverence for American law enforcement. Driving him around L.A. in a Ford Country Squire station wagon, she’d pull over when she saw a police officer walking down the street and tell her son to shake his hand. “The idea of having someone in uniform be a source of security was something very meaningful to my mother,” he told me.

Mayorkas has described his command of Spanish as “suboptimal.” When he was a boy and his father would speak it to him, he’d reply in English. “The term back then was ‘assimilation,’ ” he told me. Mayorkas went by Ali, which he still uses today. His youth, as he tells it, was a period of waywardness and curiosity—delivering pizzas, working as a messenger in a rickety old car without air-conditioning. “I just wasn’t strongly foot-planted at the time in terms of where I was headed,” he said. Years later, when Obama re-started diplomatic relations with Cuba, Mayorkas joined an American delegation in Havana. “It was like a pilgrimage for him,” Mayorkas’s wife, Tanya, told me. He visited his family’s old apartment and his father’s elementary school, and travelled to the cemetery where his paternal grandmother was buried. Tanya said, “A piece of himself got put back into place.”

After college, at U.C. Berkeley, and law school, at Loyola Marymount, Mayorkas got a job as a line prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, in Los Angeles. Around the courthouse, his friends called him the Mayor, because he knew everybody; he stopped to speak with the janitors, the court reporters, the clerks. For a prosecutor, he showed an unusual interest in the lives of the people on trial. Three decades later, he can still recite the home address of the first person he charged. “It’s not easy to see a human being shackled,” he once told me.

In 1995, Mayorkas was brought in to try the fraud case of Heidi Fleiss, nicknamed the Hollywood Madam, who ran a prostitution ring catering to wealthy and powerful L.A. clients. The defense held that prostitution was a victimless crime and that Fleiss was the target of gender discrimination. Mayorkas countered by emphasizing the ugly realities of sex work. “Fleiss cried, and they were not crocodile tears,” Mayorkas told me. “I thought it reflected well of her.” He won the case, and earned the respect of the opposing counsel, who praised him lavishly in the press. Fleiss told a local reporter, “I shouldn’t say this, but I really like him. Even though he’s the little fucker who was begging the judge to give me ten years.”

Three years later, Mayorkas, at the age of thirty-nine, became the youngest U.S. Attorney in the country. There were more prominent candidates for the job, and it was unusual for someone of his rank to be promoted from inside the office. What gave him the edge, one person told me, was his interview with Senator Dianne Feinstein, who ultimately made the recommendation to President Bill Clinton. Mayorkas had honed a public image that was well suited for the moment—a centrist with a heart. “Part of my job is knowing when not to prosecute,” he told Los Angeles magazine two years later. “But if you’re guilty and you want to bang heads in court, I have no hesitation in making sure you get drilled.”

His life in public service followed a partisan cycle: when Republicans took power, he left for private practice. He spent the Bush years at the L.A. firm O’Melveny & Myers, and then in 2srcsrc9 was tapped by the Obama Administration to lead U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the country’s legal immigration system. At Mayorkas’s Senate confirmation hearings, where Feinstein introduced him, he said, “The most important responsibility of U.S.C.I.S. is its authority to bestow citizenship. As a naturalized citizen, I have a deep understanding and appreciation of this mission.”

“This is embarrassing. I don’t even remember what I was crying about.”

Cartoon by Pia Guerra and Ian Boothby

In June of 2src12, after more than two decades of congressional inaction on immigration reform, Obama announced a sweeping measure called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which granted a reprieve from deportation to undocumented immigrants who’d grown up in the U.S. Through the program, they could qualify for work, state-based financial aid, and mortgages. “If there were a hundred and fifty thousand people who applied, that would have been a ton,” Noah Kroloff, the D.H.S. chief of staff at the time, told me. “It wound up being several times that.”

U.S.C.I.S. was given two months to manage the rollout. “We’re talking about the government here, and each and every application had to be considered individually,” Kroloff said. Mayorkas told his staff, “I don’t care if you agree or disagree with this policy. They’re saying we can’t do it in time. Wouldn’t it be nice to prove them wrong?” By March of 2src13, the agency had registered more than four hundred and fifty thousand applicants—a resounding success. “We were meeting with him every single week,” Hincapié, the former director of the National Immigration Law Center, said. “It was the first time we had someone in a U.S.C.I.S.-level position that was doing the work side by side with us.”

A year later, after Obama nominated Mayorkas as Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, an official at the D.H.S. inspector general’s office leaked information about an ethics investigation involving Mayorkas to Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The allegations concerned a visa program that allowed foreigners to qualify for green cards if they invested large sums of money in American businesses, thereby helping to create jobs. U.S.C.I.S. staff members claimed that Mayorkas had interceded on behalf of applications that were slated to be rejected. Three of these applications involved companies associated with well-connected Democrats, including Hillary Clinton’s brother Anthony Rodham and Terry McAuliffe, who was then running for governor of Virginia. The inspector general’s final report found no evidence of illegal behavior but faulted Mayorkas for appearing to improperly exert his influence. “Two possibilities existed,” according to a profile in the Washington Post. “He’d committed the sin of favoritism. Or . . . he’d committed another kind of power-player sin: he hadn’t considered the optics.”

The controversy reanimated a scandal from Mayorkas’s time as U.S. Attorney. He had once taken a call from the White House about commuting the sentence of a convicted drug dealer whose father was a Democratic donor with ties to Hillary Clinton’s other brother, Hugh Rodham. In his confirmation hearings for the job at U.S.C.I.S., Mayorkas had addressed the incident, denying any wrongdoing but saying that he’d made a “mistake.”

The confirmation process for Deputy Secretary dragged on for months. Senator Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, said that the allegations raised “strong questions and concerns about his fitness for this office,” and that it would be “virtually unprecedented” for the Senate to move forward with Mayorkas’s confirmation. Democrats scheduled a vote anyway, and confirmed him without Republican support. It was the start of a long-standing partisan grudge.

Obama had campaigned on restoring humanity to the immigration system. But, once he was in office, the number of deportations rose. Increased enforcement, he believed, was necessary to keep Republicans at the negotiating table for comprehensive immigration reform, which he attempted in his second term. He was right, up to a point. But the Gang of Eight’s bill died anyway, in the summer of 2src14, and by then a record number of unaccompanied children and families from Central America had begun arriving at the southern border, straining government resources and dominating the news.

The White House announced that it would start detaining families who crossed the border seeking asylum. This meant that children could spend months in custody with their parents, even though none of them had committed a crime. The D.H.S. Secretary at the time, Jeh Johnson, defended the move, saying, “We simply cannot have a situation where, if you cross the border and are apprehended, you can count on being escorted to the nearest bus station.”

The asylum crisis, coupled with the collapse of the comprehensive reform bill, undercut more than a decade of Democratic organizing. “The focus for years and years was on the domestic population,” Mayorkas told me. Because millions of immigrants lacked status, policy discussions revolved around legalization; heightened security at the border was a means to an end. Now the center of gravity was shifting. Republicans were refusing to offer legal status to anyone, and tens of thousands of new migrants were arriving with stories of abuse and suffering, only to languish while the government scrambled to find places to put them. Mayorkas, who had strongly opposed the family-detention policy, was deputized to break the news to a room full of indignant activists. He considered it one of the lowest points of his career.

Mayorkas spent the Trump years in a state of canny expectation, living in a town house in Georgetown and working at WilmerHale. In his spare time, he met influential immigration advocates for coffee and occasionally spoke to journalists off the record. “It was obvious to anyone who was paying attention that he was well positioned to be the Secretary,” Cecilia Muñoz, the director of domestic policy in the Obama White House, told me. Ricki Seidman, an old friend of Mayorkas’s who’s now a senior counsellor at D.H.S., asked him if he’d consider becoming Attorney General. “Trump has torn the Department of Homeland Security apart,” Mayorkas responded. “I want to rebuild it.”

During the 2src2src Presidential transition, Mayorkas prepared for his new position in part by speaking to people who had held the job before, including Michael Chertoff, the head of D.H.S. under George W. Bush. “There was not really a transition,” Chertoff told me recently. “When we passed it on to the Obama Administration, we had multiple meetings over a course of months. It was the reverse when Trump left, because he didn’t want to admit he lost.” In the days after the Inauguration, Roberta S. Jacobson, whom the White House brought in to coördinate border policy, met with career D.H.S. officials over Zoom. “It was like talking to a room of people with P.T.S.D.,” she told me. “They had just lived through four years in which no one asked them for their opinion. They were yelled at, belittled, talked at—end of meeting.”

The incoming Administration also made some costly mistakes. Members of the Biden transition team had drafted meticulous planning documents outlining the technical steps necessary for managing the border at a turbulent moment. There were suggestions detailing, for instance, what to do if arrivals increased—how to handle operations as well as political messaging. But the plans never reached the new Administration’s political appointees. The documents weren’t shared widely, one person involved told me, because of fears that people outside the Administration could sue to obtain them.

In the final months of the Trump Administration, the number of unaccompanied children at the border was rising. By the time Biden took office, authorities were overwhelmed. Top officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which was responsible for housing minors and placing them with sponsors, still weren’t confirmed. Several Administration sources told me that Mayorkas had been forced to step in and help manage the situation. A policy expert who’d served in the transition asked Susan Rice, the head of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, if the Administration was consulting the planning documents. “What documents?” Rice replied.

In the President’s earliest days in office, he attempted to deliver on a central campaign promise: dismantling Trump’s asylum policies, especially the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico, which had forced seventy thousand asylum seekers to wait in dangerous and squalid conditions just south of the U.S. border. But in an effort to show solidarity with the progressives who had helped him win, Biden went a step further, issuing a deportation moratorium that was quickly blocked by a federal judge. Republicans portrayed his entire approach as feckless and naïve. They were ready with a slogan: “Biden’s Border Crisis.”

The White House had instructed Mayorkas to avoid using the word “crisis” in his public appearances, but it was obvious to most observers that there was one. More than five hundred unaccompanied children were arriving each day; thousands of them were stuck in borderland holding facilities. At a White House press conference, in March, 2src21, a reporter asked Mayorkas if there was a “crisis at the border.” “The answer is no,” Mayorkas replied. “I think there is a challenge at the border that we are managing.” The response struck even his defenders as awkward and evasive. When I asked him about the Administration’s messaging, he told me, “I refuse to engage on battles of diction.”

Biden, meanwhile, was furious that the issue was casting a shadow over the start of his term. “There was tension with every single person who sat with the President in the Oval Office on this issue,” Jacobson, the border coördinator, said. Administration officials faulted the head of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, who had recently been confirmed, for bungling the response. During a meeting in which Biden took Becerra to task, Axios reported, Rice passed Mayorkas a note: “Don’t save him.”

But, according to three Administration officials, during a White House meeting in late spring, Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, raised the possibility of firing Mayorkas, just to reset the Administration’s message. (“I never suggested firing Secretary Mayorkas,” Klain told me. “I consider Ali a friend and a dedicated public servant.”) The irony was that Mayorkas, who had witnessed the surge in unaccompanied minors in 2src14, as Deputy Secretary, was perhaps the least convenient fall guy. Among the Administration’s highest-ranking members, he had the most experience with the matter. As one former White House official told me, “Who could possibly replace him?”

Last year, at an event in Washington, Mayorkas fell into conversation with a staffer. He was frustrated that the border issue was consuming all his time. “What’s happened to me?” he said. “I came in with so many ideas.”

One Trump border policy in particular had put Mayorkas in a bind. At the start of the pandemic, the Trump White House had strong-armed officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to authorize the use of Title 42, an obscure statute that allows the expulsion of migrants without asylum hearings during a public-health emergency. The Biden Administration—both fearing a border surge and concerned about detaining migrants in close quarters during a pandemic—had opted to retain its newfound powers. The decision ultimately made the crisis worse. Migrants who were expelled under the policy generally didn’t face detention or future legal consequences, so they reëntered the country multiple times. “Title 42 turned the system on its head,” a former senior White House official said. “It inflated the numbers.”

The situation created conflicts within Mayorkas’s agencies. “The factions inside D.H.S. were even more complicated than they were at the White House,” the former senior official told me. The heads of the Border Patrol and ICE kept telling Mayorkas that they didn’t have the processing capacity to handle large numbers of migrants at the border without Title 42, but the policy was straining resources within their own ranks. Many ICE officers resented Title 42, because they were responsible for carrying out the expulsions; they frequently had to fly migrants to places along the Mexican border where it would be easier to expel them. The agency couldn’t deport everyone, and a large portion of the people who were allowed into the country were not even screened for asylum. Border Patrol agents, for their part, were glad not to have to book the migrants they encountered—ICE took them into custody before expelling them—but the rise in repeat crossings meant that the agents had to make more apprehensions.

“The only problem with Heaven is there’s nowhere to hang stuff.”

Cartoon by Tom Toro

In August of 2src21, the American Civil Liberties Union resumed a lawsuit that it had first brought against the Trump Administration to end the policy. The move coincided with a separate set of negotiations between the Biden Administration and the A.C.L.U., over a lawsuit to reunite families who’d been separated by Trump. When I spoke to Mayorkas in May of 2src21, he called the reunification effort “a source of pride” and said that he considered the families “victims.” Mayorkas was also speaking to lawyers at the A.C.L.U., including the organization’s executive director, Anthony Romero, to persuade them to delay the Title 42 case. Sometimes he’d talk to them twice a day about both lawsuits; one call would be coöperative, the other tense. Mayorkas was desperate to buy time, but, as long as Title 42 remained in effect, his agencies were slow to develop alternatives.

In early September, rumors began circulating among a community of Haitians in southern Mexico that it was possible to sneak across the border into Del Rio, a small city in southwest Texas. Many of the Haitians hadn’t lived in their home country for nearly a decade, having relocated to Chile and other countries in South America after the devastating 2src1src earthquake. The economic fallout of the pandemic had uprooted them once more. Now, as thousands of Haitians made their way to Del Rio, local authorities declared a state of emergency. The port of entry was temporarily closed. Mayorkas flew to the border, where about fifteen thousand migrants had set up a makeshift camp under the Del Rio International Bridge. “There was a real fear that the flow of Haitians would keep coming,” an official working in the White House at the time told me.

Two groups inside D.H.S. were battling over how to respond. The conditions in Haiti were especially dire: in July, the Haitian President, Jovenel Moïse, had been assassinated, intensifying a gang war that was already under way in the capital. One set of advisers saw mass deportation as the only option; the other balked at the human cost. A former Biden Administration official told me, “The conversation that mattered was the one that the Secretary was having with officials at the White House. Depending on how much heat he’s getting from them, it’ll tip him in the direction of one stakeholder or another.”

By mid-September, D.H.S. was launching several deportation flights to Haiti each day, using the expulsion authority granted by Title 42. Some D.H.S. officials, upset by the policy, began scouring passenger manifests to remove women and children before the planes took off.

On September 16th, Mayorkas called an emergency meeting with half a dozen D.H.S. officials. He looked anxious and exasperated—clearly tormented, one of the attendees told me. Representatives from ICE were the most outspoken. Their agents had to operate the deportation flights, and some of the migrants were physically resisting being taken to Haiti. There had been incidents on the tarmac in Port-au-Prince in which migrants refused to get off the planes. Fights broke out with deportation officers. Mayorkas was unmoved. When a career ICE officer suggested reducing the number of flights, Mayorkas’s face tightened. “I don’t hear any disagreement,” he said firmly. An official in attendance told me, “He was telling people to shut up.”

Three days later, agents on horseback chased after a group of Haitians along the banks of the Rio Grande. The images—white border agents in cowboy hats lunging toward Black migrants, including children—went viral. Prominent Democrats, such as Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, who’d said little about Title 42, now assailed the policy. It “defies common sense,” he said. “It also defies common decency.” Biden said that the agents’ actions were “simply not who we are.”

Mayorkas made a television appearance in which he expressed concern without directly blaming his agents. “I am going to let the investigation run its course,” he said. But “one cannot weaponize a horse to aggressively attack a child.” At a White House press conference, on September 24th, he shared what was meant to be more positive news. “Less than one week ago, there were approximately fifteen thousand migrants in Del Rio, Texas,” he said. “As of this morning, there are no longer any migrants in the camp underneath the Del Rio International Bridge.”

Early one morning in late January, 2src22, Mayorkas stood before a group of some three dozen Border Patrol agents in Yuma, Arizona. He and the head of the Border Patrol, a phlegmatic agency veteran from Texas named Raul Ortiz, were there for a “muster,” as the agency calls it—to field questions and to address concerns—but the agents were upset. They were getting COVID at high rates, and some were dying. In the early two-thousands, Yuma was among the busiest crossings along the border, but it had calmed in the decades since, as more smuggling networks moved migrants into South Texas. “All of a sudden,” Ortiz later told me, “they start to see an uptick in traffic like everyone else.”

Keeping the Border Patrol in line has become a particular challenge for Democratic Administrations. During the Obama years, a member of the Border Patrol union, which represents some eighteen thousand agents, leaked information about the routes of government buses carrying migrants, so that anti-immigration activists could block their paths with protests. In 2src16, the union endorsed Trump. In the summer of 2src21, Biden officials learned that the Border Patrol had been releasing thousands of migrants without the paperwork they’d need to report to ICE and, eventually, to show up in court. The head of the Border Patrol at the time was Rodney Scott, an outspoken critic of Biden. “They do whatever they want,” a former White House official said.

In Yuma, Mayorkas sounded apologetic, but he also looked like an interloper, in khakis and a polo shirt with the D.H.S. insignia. “The numbers I know well, but I don’t live them,” he said. Before he finished speaking, an agent made a show of turning his back on him. “You can turn your back on me,” Mayorkas said, “but I’ll never turn my back on you.” The agent responded, “You did the day you were appointed.”

On the flight out of Yuma, Mayorkas asked Ortiz, “What do I need to do, Chief?” Ortiz told him to distance himself from the White House. “You go before Congress and testify that it’s not a crisis, and then you come out here and you have three thousand people under a bridge in El Paso, or fifteen thousand people under the bridge in Del Rio,” he said. “Don’t try to B.S. and sugarcoat the agents out there.”

That May, Mayorkas travelled to the offices of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, in Washington, for a meeting with about forty representatives from several of the most prominent advocacy organizations in the country. The mood was glum. Many of the lawyers had thought that the Democrats would be able to secure a pathway to citizenship for a portion of the country’s undocumented population through a budget measure known as reconciliation, which had recently failed. It would be another year before Title 42 was finally lifted. Mayorkas asked the attendees a question: What did they think that the government should do if a migrant, with a lawyer, applied for asylum but eventually lost her case both before a judge and on appeal? He waited for someone to acknowledge that such a person, by law, would have to be removed. No one spoke.

The common criticism of Mayorkas, shared by both his allies and his antagonists, is that he wants to be liked. The paradox is that the head of D.H.S. can rarely please anybody. Janet Napolitano was a two-term governor of Arizona before she became Obama’s first D.H.S. Secretary; her chief credential for the job was her obdurate centrism in a border state roiled by political fights over immigration. “I remember I was testifying on the Hill, before the Judiciary Committee,” she told me. “The Republican members were beating up on me for being soft at the border, not doing enough, being weak. And there were advocates in the room yelling and chanting about how Obama was the ‘deporter-in-chief.’ ”

As Mayorkas shuttled between immigration agents and advocates, officials at D.H.S. were beginning to think more expansively about the situation at the border. After the war in Ukraine began, large numbers of Ukrainians had started gathering in northern Mexico. Mayorkas and his advisers came up with a plan to grant them entry using the Administration’s powers of “parole,” a Presidential authority, in place since the Eisenhower era, that allows the government to bring in vulnerable people in moments of international emergency. Their legal status would be temporary, but they’d get authorization to work. “Almost immediately, the gatherings at ports of entry dissipated, and people began accessing the program,” Mayorkas told me. “We then applied it to the Venezuelans.”

The idea was to manage the flow of people to the border, not simply to fight it. The government would open legal pathways for some migrants to gain entry to the U.S., but it would refuse asylum to anyone who attempted to enter the country by crossing the border between ports of entry. D.H.S. identified the fastest-growing populations of new arrivals—Venezuelans, Haitians, Cubans, and Nicaraguans—and built a parole process around them. It would allow as many as thirty thousand members of these nationalities to enter the U.S. legally each month. At the same time, the government had expanded access to a scheduling app, called CBP One, that migrants could use once they reached central Mexico; this would grant them an appointment at a port of entry, where they had a chance to get paroled into the U.S.

In the past year, some four hundred and fifty thousand people have used CBP One to make an appointment at the border. Another three hundred and sixty thousand have used the program reserved for the four nationalities. At the same time, between the middle of last May, when Title 42 was lifted, and the end of January, D.H.S. deported roughly half a million migrants, including some ninety thousand who crossed the border with family members.

Jason Houser, the former ICE official, had been critical of the White House’s handling of the situation in Del Rio. “We had twenty-five flights to Haiti on Title 42,” he told me. “No one got to seek asylum.” But the parole process, he said, was the only sensible response to what is happening at the border. In the first months of the program, encounters at the border with migrants from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua dropped ninety per cent. What was especially striking, Houser said, was that some of the same Haitians the Administration had expelled in 2src21 were now applying for parole.

In December, as I sat in Mayorkas’s office at the department’s headquarters, his phone would occasionally ring, and, after he excused himself, I’d hear him greet a member of the small group negotiating the Senate border bill. Democrats were considering measures that would have once been inconceivable—raising the screening standards for asylum and creating “triggers” to stop asylum processing when border traffic increases—and getting modest concessions in return. Legalization of any sort was off the table. A senior D.H.S. official involved in the negotiations told me, “Democrats have shifted in a major way in the last six months because of Greg Abbott.”

Since the spring of 2src22, Abbott, the governor of Texas, has sent more than a hundred thousand migrants to six Democratic cities across the country. He’s refused to coördinate his efforts with governors, mayors, or local officials, and the result has been chaos, as intended. This past fall, as Mayorkas was being driven home, he passed two buses unloading passengers near the Vice-President’s residence. “It was the middle of the night,” he said. “I find it unconscionable.”

“O.K., Hamlet, I admit I killed your father! Just please stop making me watch your improv group!”

Cartoon by Jason Adam Katzenstein

At first, mayors in New York, Chicago, and Washington publicly attacked Abbott. But as the numbers of migrants grew, exceeding the capacity of shelter systems and overwhelming municipal and state budgets, local leaders turned their ire toward Biden. “The President and the White House have failed this city,” Eric Adams, the mayor of New York, said last April.

One of the mayors who has worked with Mayorkas on the issue is Mike Johnston, of Denver, a forty-nine-year-old Democrat who won election last June, having run a campaign to address homelessness. Since Abbott began his busing scheme, Denver has received more migrants per capita than any other city, exacerbating some of the issues that Johnston had vowed to solve. “We’re the cheapest ticket north of El Paso,” he told me. “The great tragedy of this situation is that we have employers all over the city calling us every week saying, ‘We have open jobs—can we please hire the migrants that have arrived?’ ”

Johnston believes that there is no way to handle the influx of migrants without a federal response. “You need a system to manage across cities,” he told me. In the past year, he noted, Chicago has seen more Ukrainian refugees arrive than Venezuelans. “You cannot find a single one of them on the streets of Chicago, because they’re in jobs, in houses, in communities,” he said. “They came with work authorization, they came with federal support.”

In September, Mayorkas announced that the government would extend temporary protected status to Venezuelans who’d arrived in the U.S. before July 31, 2src23. This meant that they could apply for work permits, which in turn would allow them to move out of city shelters. But more people were coming by the day. A few months later, after a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which is led by Johnston, I spoke to a senior White House official. “There are a number of cities that have said, ‘We are willing to help,’ ” the official told me. But those cities say they have two conditions: “We need work-authorized people, because we have all the jobs in the world. And, secondly, we cannot put an ad up, because we do not want to be the next target of Greg Abbott.” When I asked Mayorkas if D.H.S. could have done more to neutralize Abbott’s campaign, he pointed out an operational problem: once migrants are released into the U.S., “we are limited in our authority to control their movement.”

This was technically true, but it also glossed over some ideas that had been circulating within the department. In the spring of 2src22, a group of officials at ICE and Customs and Border Protection proposed a plan for the federal government to send migrants to cities across the country. Rather than watch Abbott make unilateral decisions with national consequences, the Administration would have intervened to meet local and state needs. Houser, of ICE, was one of the proposal’s authors. “We could create two thousand movements a day away from the border,” he told me. “The cities we were going to work with were Buffalo, Miami, L.A., Newark, Denver, and Detroit.” The key, he said, was to fly and bus people to these cities and “process them in transit.” They could be released to ICE custody once they arrived. He told me that the group “did multiple weekend meetings” with top officials at the White House, and that getting the idea past them was “like passing a kidney stone.”

Eventually, Houser was invited to a meeting with a group of high-ranking officials, including Julie Chavez Rodriguez, who is now the director of Biden’s reëlection campaign. At the time, she served as the head of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which is the White House’s direct point of contact with state and local governments. “When it got into her orbit, we knew the idea was being seriously considered,” Houser told me. But, then, “all of a sudden, it went quiet.” The argument he later heard was that “we don’t want to own the issue. We’ll be accused of finishing the smugglers’ job.”

Before the February 6th impeachment vote, the Republican-led Homeland Security Committee held a series of hearings to investigate possible ways to charge Mayorkas. These sessions, as many Democrats pointed out, were combative, full of invective, and almost entirely devoid of substance. Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the committee, summarized the Republicans’ approach to me as “Don’t confuse me with facts. My mind is made up.”

But when I attended one hearing, on January 1srcth, I’d at least expected some high drama. Instead, the hearing was upstaged by a meeting of the House Oversight Committee, which was marking up a resolution to hold the President’s son, Hunter Biden, in contempt of Congress. That morning, as I listened to the Republican attorney general of Oklahoma tell a sparse crowd to “remember the murder victims, remember the drug-overdose victims” of an “unsecure border,” Hunter surprised everyone by walking into the Oversight hearing to stare down its members. Nancy Mace, a Republican from South Carolina, responded, “I’m looking at you, Hunter Biden,” then added that he “should be arrested right here, right now, and go straight to jail.”

An hour or so later, I bumped into Mace near an elevator. When I told her that I’d missed the confrontation, because I’d been at the Mayorkas impeachment hearing, she said, “If we can expel George Santos, we can get rid of Mayorkas.”

This was supposedly the majority view in the House. A month later, when the impeachment vote failed, by the slimmest of margins, some G.O.P. members openly wondered if expelling Santos—who, like the Party’s presumptive Presidential nominee, faces a hefty federal indictment—had been a mistake. “Miss me yet?” Santos tweeted, next to a screenshot of the vote count.

The politics of immigration have always been cynical, even obscene. But Washington was entering a new dimension. When the bipartisan immigration agreement was finally announced, on February 4th, Lankford’s own colleagues attacked it. Days earlier, in a meeting with senators, Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader, told them, “The politics on this have changed.” On Truth Social, Trump had called the bill “a great gift to the Democrats, and a Death Wish for The Republican Party.” As long as he was campaigning on a broken immigration system, congressional Republicans couldn’t try to fix it. “We don’t want to do anything to undermine him,” McConnell said, according to Punchbowl News.

For days, Biden had been saying that, if only Republicans could get their act together and move the legislation to his desk, he would immediately declare an emergency and “shut down the border.” The White House was finally issuing an unapologetic message on immigration. It just happened to use the language of the other side.

On February 13th, a special election was held in New York to fill Santos’s seat, which Democrats were poised to flip. While the returns came in, and Republicans guarded their dwindling majority in the chamber, the Speaker convened another vote to impeach Mayorkas. As before, the charges failed to identify any concrete acts of wrongdoing. There was still no chance of conviction in the Senate. But this time Scalise was in attendance, and two Democrats—one with COVID, the other stuck in an airport in Florida—were not. The resolution passed. History was made, abjectly.

Biden called it a “blatant act of unconstitutional partisanship.” Schumer dismissed it as a “sham.” Mayorkas kept quiet. When I reached him two days later, he was flying to a security conference in Munich. “Our work continues,” he told me. “The threats we face are real.” ♦

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