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Senate Confirms Alejandro Mayorkas, First Immigrant And First Latino To Lead DHS

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, key parts of the Biden administration's immigration agenda were set into motion. The Senate voted to confirm Alejandro Mayorkas, making him the first immigrant and the first Latino to lead the Department of Homeland Security. That puts him in charge of President Biden's immigration policy. Two miles away at the White House, Biden also unveiled a fresh set of executive actions aimed at undoing some of the most controversial immigration policies from the Trump administration. But change is not happening fast enough for some immigrant advocates. NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and joins us now.

Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey, so let's go to that last point I just mentioned. A lot seems to be happening on the immigration front, but that's not fast enough for some, I understand.

ROSE: That's right because at least for these three executive actions announced today, not that much will happen immediately. Let's take them one by one. One executive order directs the Department of Homeland Security to review U.S. asylum policy. Another directs the administration to review a whole host of changes that president - former President Trump made to the legal immigration system, and a third action will create a task force to look at family separation under Trump. Hundreds of migrant families are still living apart. The task force's job will be to find them and to make recommendations on how to reunify these families.

CHANG: OK. And explain, how does Alejandro Mayorkas fit into all of that?

ROSE: Well, for one thing, he'll serve as the chairman of that task force on family separation that I just mentioned. And Mayorkas will lead DHS, which is in charge of immigration enforcement and legal immigration. And already, we're seeing a major shift in tone on immigration from the Biden administration. Here's a moment from Mayorkas' confirmation hearing last month, where he talks about coming to the U.S. from Cuba as a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: My father and mother brought me to this country to escape communism and to provide me with the security, opportunity and pride that American citizenship brings to each of us.

ROSE: The Biden administration frequently talks about welcoming immigrants, talks about them as an asset to the country. And this is after four years of the Trump administration often describing them as a threat and a burden.

CHANG: Right. Well, Mayorkas will now be in a position to shape the journey of other families coming to the U.S. from other countries. From sort of a larger perspective, what can we expect from him, you think?

ROSE: Well, let's look at one policy that the Biden administration is expected to change - the so-called public charge rule. This is a Trump administration regulation that makes it harder for immigrants to get green cards if they've used any of a long list of public benefits - things like food stamps or subsidized health insurance. And the rule also made it easier for officials to deny immigrants who want to come to the U.S. if they are poor, and immigrant advocates call that discriminatory. They've challenged the rule in court. Now the Biden administration is trying to get rid of the rule. But again, it can't do that right away because it takes time to unwind regulations.

CHANG: Right. Well, I take it some immigrant advocates were hoping to see more dramatic action today.

ROSE: Yes, especially on family separation. They wanted to see immediate commitments to more specific remedies, like allowing these families to reunite inside the U.S. and to have some legal status, and also on Remain in Mexico. That's the Trump administration policy that forced more than 60,000 migrants to wait in Mexico for their asylum hearings. Advocates want to see a plan to allow those migrants into the U.S. They say every day that these migrants are living in squalid and dangerous conditions in these Mexican border towns is a day too long. That said, these advocates think the Biden administration is moving in the right direction, just not as fast as they might have hoped.

CHANG: That is NPR's Joel Rose.

Thank you, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.