President Barack Obama may pick another immigration fight with Republicans by selecting Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to run the Pentagon.
Johnson and Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro “Ali” Mayorkas were leading architects of Obama’s recently announced policy protecting as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Mayorkas, a Cuba-born former federal prosecutor, would be the early favorite to succeed Johnson at Homeland Security, according to administration officials and immigrant-rights activists.
He is “the only person who could step into that job and be ready for it on Day One,” said Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council.
Such a double move, after Obama signed orders that infuriated Republicans by protecting undocumented immigrants from prosecution, would keep the immigration fight front and center as Democrats try to energize Hispanic voters for the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.
The Swerving Path to Citizenship
Mayorkas was confirmed to his current job last December on a 54-41 Senate vote that came less than a month after Democrats changed the chamber’s rules to make it harder for the minority party to filibuster nominations. No Republican voted in favor of him. And Republican lawmakers have accused Mayorkas of improperly influencing government decisions to help political allies during his career as a federal prosecutor and Homeland Security official.
Even so, Mayorkas is a White House favorite who won the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police when Obama was considering his options for replacing outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. Because he’s the No. 2 at Homeland now, Mayorkas could run the department, at least on a temporary basis, without winning Senate confirmation.
White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri declined to comment on the status of Obama’s search for a new defense secretary or the possibility that Mayorkas would take over at Homeland Security if Johnson goes to the Pentagon.
Two administration officials, who requested anonymity to discuss personnel matters, said a Johnson-Mayorkas move would amount to one-and-a-half nomination fights. Mayorkas would be the tougher of the two, because he’s so thoroughly connected to the White House immigration policy and because Homeland Security is responsible for implementing Obama’s orders.
While Johnson’s role in Obama’s immigration policy may hurt him in any confirmation fight with Republicans, the Pentagon isn’t the lead agency in determining which undocumented immigrants can stay without fear of prosecution.
Obama has had to reconsider his short list for replacing departing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who announced his resignation Nov. 24 after months of fighting policy battles against White House aides.
Johnson’s name surfaced last week when Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Michele Flournoy, Obama’s former undersecretary of defense for policy, took themselves out of the running. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter remains the favorite among many Washington insiders.
Robert Raben, a Washington lobbyist and chairman of the Hispanic National Bar Association’s Endorsements Committee, said it makes sense for Obama to look to veterans of his administration as his tenure winds down.
“In the final two years, there’s a premium paid on folks who are already in the administration who are up to speed on the issues and have show their political mettle,” Raben said.
Mayorkas “is as, or more, qualified than anyone in the country,” he said.
As deputy secretary, Mayorkas is first in line to take the reins should Johnson, a former general counsel at the Pentagon, leave Homeland Security for the Defense Department, and immigrant-rights advocates said he probably would be at or near the top of the list to take the job on a permanent basis.
While Obama has the authority to go further down the depth chart of political appointees to pick an acting secretary, these immigrant-rights activists said that could cause a backlash among Hispanic organizations.
Before becoming the No. 2 official at Homeland Security, Mayorkas ran the department’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, which was responsible for implementing Obama’s 2012 order preventing the prosecution and deportation of certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
Republican senators blocked Mayorkas’s nomination to the deputy slot for six months in 2013. They cited what they called lax standards for accepting applications for protection from immigration-related prosecution under Obama’s 2012 order and a then-ongoing Homeland Security Inspector General’s Office investigation into whether Mayorkas allowed improper influence in the office’s immigrant-investor program, known as EB-5.
In addition, the Republicans said, there was a pattern of Mayorkas improperly influencing government decisions. A 2002 report issued by the Republican-run House Government Reform Committee faulted Mayorkas, then the leading federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, for calling the White House to advocate for the commutation of a drug-trafficking sentence being served by Carlos Vignali, the son of a prominent Southern California businessman and political donor.
Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said on the Senate floor Dec. 17, 2013, that documents obtained from whistle-blowers “appear to show him intervening in EB-5 decisions involving Gulf Coast Funds Management, an organization run by nobody other than Hillary Clinton’s brother Anthony Rodham,” and GreenTech Automotive, a company that had been run by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.
The inspector general’s report, dated Dec. 12 of that year, found that “when external parties inquired about program activities USCIS did not always document their decisions and responses to these inquiries, making the Employment-Based Fifth Preference regional center program appear vulnerable to perceptions of internal and external influences.” It did not find wrongdoing on the part of Mayorkas or other officials.
During his confirmation hearing in July 2013, Mayorkas denied acting improperly in that matter or any other.
“I have never in my career used undue influence to influence the outcome of a case,” he said, calling a meeting with McAuliffe to hear complaints “the extent of the interaction.”
Between the time the report was sent to Mayorkas and the time it was made public, the Senate voted to confirm him to the deputy secretary post.
There are also mixed feelings among immigrant-rights advocates about Johnson leaving Homeland Security in the middle of the fight over Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Republicans, they say, are eager to undo what Obama has done.
When his name first emerged last week as a possible Hagel successor, “We all started thinking, ‘Oh God, right after this major announcement,’” said Marshall Fitz, the vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a policy-research group that’s close to the White House.
“For him to then be leaving the agency would create some obvious challenges and concerns,” Fitz said. “There would be a lot more trepidation” about Johnson’s possible departure if “Ali hadn’t been there stride for stride.”
The more recent Obama action, signed late last month, expanded the number of those immigrants eligible for protection and added categories including the undocumented immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents.
Republicans, caught between the party base’s anger over illegal immigration and the political imperative of courting Hispanic voters, uniformly criticized Obama for using executive power to implement his policy.
“Unfortunately for the American people, the president has ignored their opinions and forged ahead with his plan, creating a constitutional crisis and an untold number of consequences for the American people and legal immigrants,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said last month.
Johnson is scheduled to testify tomorrow before the House Homeland Security Committee on Obama’s immigration plan.
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Obama Cabinet Shuffle Risks Further Immigration Fights
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