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Mayorkas interview: DHS head talks about impeachment, border and growing up in L.A.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas talks to the media, Friday, June 25, 2021, after he and Vice President Kamala Harris toured of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Central Processing Center in El Paso, Texas. Harris visited the U.S. southern border as part of her role leading the Biden administration's response to a steep increase in migration. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

Blamed by House Republicans for the unprecedented arrivals of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas narrowly escaped impeachment last week.

Mayorkas, whose family fled the regime of Fidel Castro when he was an infant and settled in Beverly Hills, is the first Latino and the first immigrant to lead the federal agency responsible for enforcing the nation's immigration laws.

House Republican leaders have vowed to attempt another impeachment vote, maybe as soon as this week.

Read more: He took on L.A.’s street gangs. For Mayorkas, impeachment ‘does not rattle me’

In a wide-ranging interview last week at Homeland Security headquarters, Mayorkas told the Los Angeles Times about his Los Angeles upbringing, his thoughts on the impeachment vote and the challenges before him. Questions and responses have been condensed and edited slightly for clarity.

Were you surprised the impeachment vote failed?

I didn't assume an outcome one way or the other. I really didn't know. My understanding is that there may be a a second round. And frankly, my schedule hasn't changed. I wasn't tracking it. I was in meetings, actually, in Northern California, working on our prioritization of the use of artificial intelligence to advance our mission and also to defend against its malevolent use. So I met with an executive in a technology company in the Bay Area, I participated in a recruitment effort — we're trying to recruit AI talent to the department. So I was busy.

You are someone with a significant degree of respect for the law and for government service. Has this process shaken your faith at all in the rule of law?

It hasn't shaken my faith in the rule of law. I am mindful of how politics has impaired execution of legal and legislative responsibilities.

How did it make you feel overall?

I am disappointed. It is unpleasant to see false statements made about me. I draw inspiration from the people with whom I work every day and what we are trying to accomplish, and I do not allow the baseless allegations to in any way impair my devotion to the work or to the people.

How did your family choose to settle in Beverly Hills?

We lived in a two-bedroom apartment half a block from the school. The education system was what drove my parents; we couldn't afford a home. My sister and I were the children, then my younger brother was born and it was three kids, and we moved to a small home two blocks away. And then my other brother was born, and I shared a bedroom with my two brothers.

Were you connected at all to the Jewish community in L.A.?

We were not very observant. I did go to synagogue, twice a year, for the High Holy Days. Certainly my mother's background was something that filled the home, and my father's background from Cuba. And when we went out to eat, one of our special places was a Cuban restaurant, just short of downtown, called El Colmao. I checked on it throughout COVID, just to make sure they were making it. It's very sentimental to me.

You know who gave it a great review? [The late Los Angeles Times restaurant critic] Jonathan Gold. I grew up with him. We went to Horace Mann, which was an elementary school that drew from a very modest community. One thinks Beverly Hills, and one has images. Not for the students of Horace Mann — we had a middle income and below.

You said recently that you're not engaged in politics, you're engaged in the work of DHS. But obviously your job is immensely politically important. Do you consider yourself politically ambitious?

I've never been politically ambitious, I've been very devoted to public service. I was a career prosecutor. That's how I entered government in 1989 and I had an opportunity almost nine years later to become a political appointee to lead the office and, quite frankly, it was a political appointment but not a political position, if you will. The work of being a prosecutor is apolitical by definition and by ethic. I understand a political environment and political ramifications of actions, but I treat my work as though I am a career government servant.

Recent reports describe the exodus from Cuba as the country's most significant migratory crisis since 1959. Does that affect you, personally, to see your own history reflected in the migratory situations of today?

The regime hasn't changed. The reason people leave hasn't changed, so I well understand the exodus. But, you know, we have laws that we enforce.

You inherited an agency that already had low morale. What have you done about that since you arrived and do you feel like it has made any dent?

I've been very focused on employee well-being. I was very focused on that throughout my tenure as deputy secretary and it's one of our highest priorities. It is our highest priority for the organization as an organization, and we have invested tremendous focus, attention and resources to that, everywhere from employee physical and mental well-being, to the condition of facilities, to fairness in pay. We recognize employees for their great work more than, I think, ever before. I've traveled around the country recognizing employees in the field. It's an intense area of focus.

But in news reports, you often hear about how politics has affected the perspective of employees on the ground.

I think that's true. Politics has entered the workplace to a degree that I had never seen before. However much that is the case, those employees remain totally committed to mission and accomplishing the mission. It has not impacted their devotion to mission one bit, from what I have seen.

What are some of the other, non-immigration-related achievements you're proudest of since becoming secretary?

Let me start with FEMA, just because I've been tracking very closely in Los Angeles the flooding and I've been on some very important calls of this week with respect to restoration of the community in Maui, following the tragic fires there. We have materially changed policies, so that otherwise historically disenfranchised communities can access individual assistance. We simplified our individual assistance programs. In the cyber domain, we have published cybersecurity performance goals that are tailored to different companies, according to their resources and capabilities. We have instituted the cybersafety review board which reviews major incidents and publishes an analysis of those incidents, as well as steps one can take. In the Customs and Border Protection area, obviously the borders are an extraordinary challenge. We have taken actions to make sure that products designed in whole or in part with forced labor don't enter the United States. We have, for the first time ever, made crimes of exploitation a mission priority. We have expanded the fight against human trafficking. We are about to launch a program to combat online child sexual exploitation and abuse. Secret Service has done an astonishing amount in protecting major events but also protecting the president visiting a country that is at war, for the first time, I think, in history.

Is it safe to say that the border has been the toughest challenge within the DHS mission, or is there another challenge that you think is particularly great that people overlook?

The challenge of fentanyl. We have taken unprecedented steps in that fight, increased the interdiction of fentanyl precursor chemicals. The threat of adverse nation-states is something that has risen tremendously over the past five-plus years, and the terrorism landscape has changed where domestic violent extremism — the lone actor, the small groups loosely affiliated — present such a significant threat to the homeland.

What did you think about the bipartisan border security and foreign aid bill that failed to advance in the Senate?

It is a tough but fair set of much-needed tools, and much-needed resources for our department and for the Department of Justice in executing our fundamentally broken immigration system. This department has relied on the Department of Defense to augment our resources at the southern border. This legislation would provide for more Border Patrol agents, more support personnel, more asylum officers, more Office of Field Operations personnel, more ICE officers, more technology. It's a bill that would make a very significant difference and one that we need.

It is important that Congress not spend time pursuing baseless allegations and actually fix what everyone agrees is a broken system. And so I hope that they really focus on this legislation and get it across the finish line. If they want the challenge at the border to be addressed, then it requires solutions, and this legislation is a solution. If they want a problem to be of political benefit, then that would be quite defining.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.