By Fabiola Santiago
After four years of the White House demonising immigrants Alejandro Mayorkas’ simple, but heartfelt, acknowledgment of his immigrant roots feels like a balm
The rise of Alejandro Mayorkas may be just the feel-good story Miami needs post-election.
After his parents fled Fidel Castro’s Communist takeover of Cuba in 1960, Mayorkas lived in Miami as a child. They eventually left the capital of Cuban exiles for a life in Los Angeles, but the 61-year-old hasn’t forgotten his immigrant beginnings.
It was the first thing on his mind after President-elect Joe Biden announced he will nominate the Cuban American to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
“When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge,” Mayorkas tweeted on Monday afternoon after the announcement. “Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.”
Ah, my heart beats again for this humans-first America, sidelined and lost to the Donald Trump years.
A new era is being launched, and nothing says it louder than Mayorkas’ selection.
After four years of the White House demonising immigrants — and not enough immigrants and children of immigrants in South Florida speaking up to shut down the ugly — Mayorkas’ simple, but heartfelt, acknowledgment of his immigrant roots feels like a balm.
Those who flee persecution again are seen by the top representatives of this government as what they are, people in need of refuge, not criminals, as President Trump and his administration unfairly cast them.
You can’t fully appreciate what it feels like to hear words of reconciliation with our immigrant past coming from a former high-ranking immigration official unless you’ve followed closely Trumpism’s derogatory and dehumanising anti-immigrant discourse. Hate speech that was turned into inhumane immigration policy.
First Hispanic, first immigrant
If confirmed by the Senate, Mayorkas would be the first Hispanic — and the first immigrant — to lead DHS.
It’s poetic justice, a fitting reversal of what Trump peddled, wholesale xenophobia to stoke his white supremacist base.
“In its history, our nation has often stood as a place of refuge and shined as a beacon of hope and opportunity for those who seek a better life for themselves and their loved ones,” Mayorkas said in a 2013 speech at the LULAC National Convention in Las Vegas when he was director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services under President Barack Obama.
“A nation like no other,” he added, “a nation that always has been and forever will remain a nation of immigrants.”
We can now dare to see Trump as an asterisk.
And this: “Being an American is not about one’s religion, the colour of one’s skin, or the place of one’s birth. Our nation thrives due to its ability to welcome newcomers who share our civic ideals and participate in our democracy.”
His words almost sound prophetic in the light of the painful history that transpired afterward.
His appointment says to Latinos, the largest ethnic minority in the country, that we matter, that we’re an asset to this country — good enough and trustworthy enough to serve in one of the most important roles in the federal government.
No, the elation at hearing uplifting words doesn’t mean that I or the immigrant advocates praising the appointment are under any illusion that, because of his ethnicity, Mayorkas will end deportations or deliver immigrants justice every time.
But we can hope for due process when asking for asylum instead of family separation as a tool to discourage knocking on our doors.
We can expect not tricks, like shaking down Greyhound buses, and in the process, disenfranchising American citizens profiled for their ethnicity, but professional border security where it is needed.
We can expect advocacy for principled and fair immigration reform.
Certainly, we won’t be seeing under Mayorkas and Biden, the “Dreamers” — young people brought here as children who know only as theirs this country — used as bargaining chips to obtain acquiescence on funding an unpopular border wall.
DACA attributed to Mayorkas
Mayorkas, in fact, is largely credited with the drafting of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that protected “Dreamers” from deportation, when he was deputy DHS secretary under Obama.
“Don’t get me wrong, I know that as #DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will deport people, not naive, but I know he will be a thoughtful and compassionate leader,” tweeted “Dreamer” Gaby Pacheco, who worked with Mayorkas to implement DACA.
“Much of its success is due to him!” she said.
And there’s no Trump, no Stephen Miller around to take away those protections from young Americans who should be put on a pathway to citizenship.
The appointment of Mayorkas is the elixir — and wake-up call, to some — that Miami needed after Trumpism recruited so many Latinos to the task of turning their backs on their own.
Relief comes fast as Biden builds the most diverse Cabinet this nation may have ever seen.
The president-elect may have lost Florida, but Biden is delivering nourishment for our immigrant souls by naming to high posts people who share our history, leaders who will bring hope to the undocumented, neighbors and friends living in fear in our community.
“A Cabinet that looks like America,” Vice President-elect Kamala Harris called it.
Some of the ugliest things I heard about immigrants during the last four years of Trumpism came from the mouths of Cuban Americans and Latinos in Miami.
Mayorkas represents the Miami, city of refuge, forgotten by so many Cuban Americans who should’ve known better than to embrace anyone asking them to betray your people.
We can celebrate, shout it from rooftops that, like America’s founders, we’re immigrants.
And proudly so.
*Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for The Miami Herald.
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