He took on L.A.'s street gangs. For Mayorkas, impeachment 'does not rattle me'

FILE - Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on threats to the homeland, Oct. 31, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. As Republicans in the House of Representatives threaten to make Mayorkas the first Cabinet official impeached in nearly 150 years, Mayorkas says, in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, he is "totally focused on the work" that his agency of 260,000 people conducts and not distracted by the politics of impeachment. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough, File)
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, shown testifying on Capitol Hill in 2023, insisted Thursday he will not resign even if impeached. (Stephanie Scarbrough / Associated Press)

This isn’t the kind of history Alejandro N. Mayorkas wanted to make.

The son of immigrants who fled Cuba and settled in Beverly Hills when he was a child, Mayorkas was tapped in 2021 by President Biden to become the first Latino head of the nation’s Department of Homeland Security.

Decades earlier, he made a reputation as the country’s youngest U.S. attorney in 1998, leading the Central District of California based in Los Angeles at 38.

In recent months, however, Mayorkas, 64, has found himself in a far less flattering historical spotlight: targeted to become the first U.S. Cabinet official impeached in nearly 150 years.

"I knew I was entering an extraordinarily polarizing environment, an environment where norms were in jeopardy, where civility was not always respected," he said of his mind-set when he became secretary. "I didn't assume this. It doesn't rattle me, though."

House Republicans, eyeing chaos at the border as a path to regain control of the White House and Senate, say Mayorkas' failure to prevent record arrivals of migrants meets the constitutional bar for impeachment of "high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Read more: House vote to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas fails, thwarted by Republican defections

Democrats call the impeachment effort a vast, politically motivated overreach, characterizing Mayorkas as a committed government servant being used as a pawn in the 2024 presidential race.

To the surprise of many, the embattled secretary on Tuesday narrowly escaped impeachment by the House when three GOP lawmakers — including one from California — broke ranks with their party and joined all Democrats to vote no.

But House Republican leaders have vowed to try again, perhaps as soon as next week, even though the Democratic-controlled Senate is certain not to convict and remove him from office.

In his first extensive, sit-down interview since the vote, Mayorkas told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday that he did not watch the impeachment proceedings. Instead, he was in a meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area discussing the agency's prioritization of artificial intelligence. He broke away for a call and was informed the vote had failed.

Mayorkas, who insists he will not resign even if impeached, says he inherited a broken and outdated immigration system that can’t adequately respond to what has become a global migration crisis brought on by violence, poverty, authoritarian regimes and climate disasters.

He called the impeachment proceedings baseless, the accusations false and blamed Congress for failing to allocate enough funding to address the issue.

After devoting his life and career to public service and law enforcement, Mayorkas said the threat of impeachment, one of the rarest, most shameful rebukes a government official can face, is disappointing but has not shaken his commitment.

Respect for the law and service to democracy are themes that run deep in Mayorkas’ upbringing.

Read more: How a California Republican helped tank Mayorkas' impeachment vote

As a boy in Los Angeles, Mayorkas recalls his mother encouraging him to approach police officers in uniform, extend his hand and thank them. After escaping Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, American police were, to her, a symbol of safety and the rule of law.

Mayorkas was born in Havana. His Jewish Cuban father owned a steel wool factory; his mother, a Jewish Romanian, narrowly survived the Holocaust when her family caught one of the last ships to Cuba.

In Beverly Hills — where his parents were drawn because of the education system — the family lived in a two-bedroom apartment before later moving to a modest home, where Mayorkas shared a bedroom with his two younger brothers. They attended a local synagogue twice a year for High Holy Days and frequented El Colmao, a Cuban restaurant in Pico Union.

Mayorkas attended Beverly Hills High School, UC Berkeley and Loyola Law School.

As a promising young federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, Mayorkas pursued the death penalty against members of the Mexican Mafia, brought organized crime charges against a Los Angeles street gang and prosecuted Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss for tax fraud and money laundering.

Time in the courtroom, where he said defense attorneys lobbed heated verbal missiles at him, prepared him for what was to come.

"When I was in the courtroom, and the arrows are flying, what one is representing is the truth," he said. "To have to fight to have that truth prevail is, I thought, what a privilege. And the arrows? Let the arrows come. We will deflect them, and break them."

David Lash, then-chief executive officer of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm in Los Angeles, remembers consulting with Mayorkas on a series of fraud cases targeting elderly people. “Ali,” as Mayorkas is known to friends, was instrumental in the success of those cases, Lash said.

Lash and Mayorkas, who lived five blocks from each other, had children around the same ages. They became close friends, getting together for backyard barbecues over the years.

Mayorkas helped recruit Lash to the pro bono program at O’Melveny, the Los Angeles law firm Mayorkas joined after President Clinton left office in 2001.

Just walking to lunch might take 20 minutes, Lash recalled, because Mayorkas seemed to know every third person on the street, and would stop to shake their hands and ask how their families were doing.

“I think that comes from himself being an immigrant and working in the public interest,” Lash said. “It’s so important to him that he’s just imbued with this respect for people who are everyday folks working to make a life.”

President Obama appointed Mayorkas to lead U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2009. There he led implementation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the program that offered work permits and deportation protections to hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the country as children.

He also led talks with the Cuban government on import security and travel as tensions between the U.S. and Cuba thawed. In 2015, he revisited his birth country for the first time.

The trip was personally difficult. His father had made the painful decision to leave Mayorkas' grandmother, who was badly ill, when they fled Cuba and never got the chance to return. When Mayorkas visited his grandmother's grave, it was in disrepair. He asked whether he could pay for landscaping at the cemetery but was refused permission, he said.

“It was a very difficult reminder of the loss and hardship of that exodus,” he said.

Four years later, Mayorkas was confirmed by the Senate as deputy secretary of Homeland Security. He led the agency’s response to the Ebola and Zika virus epidemics, built up the agency’s cybersecurity capabilities and targeted drug cartels.

His tenure wasn’t without controversy. A 2015 DHS inspector general's report accused Mayorkas of creating “an appearance of favoritism and special access” for politically connected businesses under a visa program that provided a path to citizenship for wealthy foreign investors.

Mayorkas returned to private practice during Trump’s administration as a partner at WilmerHale. But he appeared, to his friends, unsatisfied.

“He felt like there was unfinished business there, and that he could get the job done," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police. He and Mayorkas have been friends since Mayorkas led the citizenship services agency.

Pasco said Mayorkas has a real reverence and affinity for law enforcement.

“His whole worldview, his whole approach to life was really imprinted on him in his early childhood and early adulthood," Pasco said. "His family, particularly his mother, and his father, were very, very patriotic and raised him to be patriotic and appreciative of the things that the government did for them and the things that [it] protects them from.”

Mayorkas returned to the Homeland Security Department with Biden's administration, faced with the challenge of undoing many of Trump's policies, including travel bans for people from certain Muslim-majority countries, and with the aftermath of others, such as the separations of migrant children from their parents.

Mayorkas was faced with the unprecedented arrival of migrants at the southern border, not just from Central America but now also in greater numbers from places like China, India and Afghanistan. Republicans quickly put him, and his impeachment, in their sights after taking control of the House in 2023.

Rhetoric against Mayorkas has turned ugly at times. The morning of the impeachment vote, House Homeland Security Committee Chair Mark Green (R-Tenn.) behind closed doors called Mayorkas a “reptile with no balls” because he has refused to resign, according to Politico. Several House members, including Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey), quickly condemned the statement as antisemitic.

The attacks against Mayorkas have led even some conservatives to come to his defense.

Pasco’s organization, the Fraternal Order of Police, sent a letter to Congress just before the House vote Tuesday praising Mayorkas and the partnership between the DHS and local law enforcement to combat the fentanyl epidemic and violent crime. The FOP, the country’s largest police union, endorsed Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Trump’s impeachment lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, urged Republicans not to “apply a double standard” by impeaching Mayorkas.

In a letter to his colleagues Tuesday morning, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) said Mayorkas’ policies have damaged the country, but malpractice is not an impeachable crime. Homeland Security Committee members, he said, “stretch and distort the Constitution in order to hold the administration accountable for stretching and distorting the law.”

Three former Homeland Security secretaries, from Democratic and Republican administrations, said the impeachment jeopardized national security and undermined the department’s mission, including counterterrorism efforts.

And groups on the left, some of which have stridently criticized policies under Mayorkas, extended olive branches in support of the secretary, one of the highest ranking Latinos in government.

A coalition of 18 Latino-led civil rights and advocacy groups, including the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, wrote to House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) on Tuesday calling the impeachment effort a sham.

“While not all his decisions have been met with unanimous approval, including from the signers below and other voices within our community, we strongly urge Congress to redirect their efforts to working in a bipartisan manner toward humane and effective immigration reform that helps move the American people forward,” the groups wrote.

At the same time the House was advancing impeachment proceedings against Mayorkas, the Senate released a bipartisan $118-billion border and foreign aid bill, supported by Biden and which Mayorkas consulted on.

“The irony is not lost on me,” said Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), who opposed the bill, in part because it failed to include a legalization component for immigrants including so-called Dreamers, as previous negotiations have. “Republicans can’t have it both ways,” he said.

Nonetheless, Padilla said running Homeland Security is one of the toughest jobs in America, made even tougher when Congress plays politics.

Republicans, he said, “can’t bring forward meaningful solutions — so they pivot to trying to scapegoat somebody through the impeachment process.”

Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.