WASHINGTON — Shortly before the midterm elections, when Alejandro N. Mayorkas was hosting a routine town hall with senior staff members, one person addressed the elephant in the room: Does he plan to resign in the face of the Republican pledge to impeach him?
Mr. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, did not hesitate: I’m not leaving, he replied. I’m not going anywhere.
The staff members in the meeting erupted in applause and cheers, according to two people in attendance who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private event.
On Tuesday, federal border officials testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. The hearing was the latest piece of what Republicans have promised will be an aggressive push to scrutinize Mr. Mayorkas that could result in his impeachment. The panel is led by Representative James R. Comer, Republican of Kentucky, who has already made up his mind that Mr. Mayorkas, 63, should be removed for his handling of the record number of unauthorized crossings at the southern border since President Biden has been in office. On Tuesday, however, Republicans barely brought up Mr. Mayorkas, and instead focused on blaming Mr. Biden for the situation at the border.
Even though the spike in illegal entries is part of a global migration trend, Mr. Mayorkas has become the face of the intractable problem, particularly for Republicans who see failures at the border as a winning political strategy in their efforts to take back the White House in 2024.
With a target on his back, Mr. Mayorkas is a shield for the Biden White House, which ultimately signs off on immigration policy decisions. In a statement to The New York Times, Mr. Mayorkas said that the department would “be responsive to congressional oversight,” but that nothing would divert him from his job as secretary. The White House contends senior officials are united behind Mr. Mayorkas.
The Times spoke with two dozen people who work or have worked with Mr. Mayorkas over the years, at the Department of Homeland Security, at the White House and outside government. They describe a more complicated and nuanced picture of Mr. Mayorkas and his record two years into the job: an embattled secretary who may have had good intentions with his immigration policy goals but has been hamstrung by elements outside his control.
Those obstacles include a staccato of court orders blocking his efforts, a White House that has struggled to develop a coherent border strategy amid fears of political backlash and a polarized Congress that is unlikely to overhaul outdated immigration laws that have crippled the system for decades.
Still, Mr. Mayorkas, who has pledged to execute the Biden administration’s promise to create a fairer and more humane immigration system, is running behind schedule on delivering those results.
He has also had a hard time rescinding Trump-era policies, which the Biden administration repeatedly criticized on the campaign trail. And he is entering what is expected to be an exceptionally difficult period of his career, as Republicans open a barrage of personal and professional attacks as they conduct oversight.
“The situation at the southern border is dangerous and chaotic, and Secretary Mayorkas must be held accountable for failing to uphold his responsibility to secure the border,” Mr. Comer said in a statement to The Times. For impeachment proceedings to move forward, Speaker Kevin McCarthy must announce a formal impeachment inquiry.
The White House pushed back against the idea that it had no coherent immigration strategy and pinned the blame on Republican lawmakers who they say have obstructed Mr. Biden’s proposal for immigration legislation.
“Secretary Mayorkas has worked against immeasurable odds to lead the Department of Homeland Security out of the depths of the prior administration’s chaos, cruelty and dysfunction to deliver real, lasting and meaningful reform,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary.
Overshadowed by the Border
When Mr. Biden’s future policymakers began meeting over video chat during the presidential transition, Mr. Mayorkas told peers that one of his main priorities would be restoring stability and credibility to a department that had atrophied during the Trump administration.
At the same time, he told aides, the department could no longer be hyper-focused on the border as it had been the previous four years. The agency is also responsible for natural disaster response, countering domestic extremism and protecting the president.
Mr. Mayorkas knew even then, he told peers, that it would not be easy. But he was widely seen as one of the most qualified for the job, having served two previous Senate-confirmed stints at the department, first by leading the agency responsible for processing legal immigration and then as the deputy secretary of the entire department.
And he possessed a personal understanding of what it is like to flee government persecution and find refuge in the United States, as he did as a child from Cuba.
“It’s convenient for some to forget the terrible state the department was in just two years ago under the Trump administration,” said Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee for the past 18 years.
Morale at the agency has been improving. Many career employees do not feel they are being asked to break the law to carry out the administration’s policy, as was the case at times during the Trump era. And two years in, Mr. Mayorkas is still in the job, whereas by this time four years ago, the department was on its third secretary, with the fourth taking over a few months later.
Mr. Mayorkas has also focused on nonimmigration issues. He went on a hiring spree for the department’s cybersecurity mission, elevating the agency’s role in addressing the threat.
On immigration, he has advanced policies that do not capture widespread public attention, including some that were left unfinished at the end of the Obama administration. One recent example is the department’s move to protect migrant workers who have witnessed or experienced abusive conditions.
He has also ended the detention of immigrant families and directed officers to target employers who hire undocumented immigrants. Recently, he celebrated the second anniversary of the task force he created to reunite families separated under one of President Donald J. Trump’s most vilified policies. Mr. Mayorkas said 600 children have been reunited with their families so far.
Michael Chertoff, who served as the homeland security secretary during the George W. Bush administration and led the department through the response to Hurricane Katrina, said Mr. Mayorkas probably “faces maybe more challenges and more multifaceted challenges than anybody, including me, faced previously.”
Despite his efforts in other areas of the department, Mr. Mayorkas’s tenure has been dominated by the southern border.
A Least Favorite Subject
Mr. Mayorkas started the job with a long list of goals, including reversing policies that Democrats and immigration advocates saw as Mr. Trump’s cruelest anti-immigrant measures and replacing them with ones that, in his words, would create a “fair, orderly and humane” immigration system.
That is harder said than done. The southern border is one of Mr. Biden’s least favorite agenda items, according to a former senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. And officials say the White House is keen to keep the topic out of the news cycle.
Abdullah Hasan, a White House spokesman, defended Mr. Biden’s focus on the border by noting that one of the president’s first acts was to propose immigration reform legislation and that he has since repeatedly called on Congress to pass the bill.
“We’re not going to engage in political grandstanding like Republicans in Congress,” Mr. Hasan said. “We’re focused on doing the actual work and driving toward real solutions.”
The administration rolled out its most sweeping measures yet at the beginning of the year and announced plans to publish a proposed rule that would restrict access to asylum, which has similarities with a Trump-era policy that drew harsh criticism from Democrats. A few days later, Mr. Biden visited the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso for the first time since he took office. The new moves had the immediate effect of slashing the number of illegal crossings. January saw the fewest illegal crossings since February 2021.
But critics say the new measures lack the fair and humane hallmarks that Mr. Mayorkas has long promised. They offer new legal pathways to citizens from just four countries — Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In addition, applications require a smartphone and internet access to use a government app that, until recently, was available only in English and Spanish, putting many poor Haitians living in migrant camps at a great disadvantage. To be eligible for the humanitarian parole being offered, migrants have to have official government documents like passports and visas — something not all migrants, especially Haitians living in Haiti, have or can acquire.
The new measures are also based on a temporary public health policy that allows border officials to swiftly expel migrants, even if they are seeking asylum. It is a policy that Mr. Mayorkas has privately criticized but that senior White House officials have, at times, embraced because it has helped manage overwhelming numbers of illegal crossings.
“Mayorkas has been delegated the contradictory tasks of championing immigration reform while enforcing currently unjust laws,” said Chris Newman, the legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a pro-immigration group. “How can you be both a reformer and an enforcer of a rotted system built on unjust laws?”
Last year, before the administration announced those new measures, Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff at the time, said on multiple occasions that Mr. Mayorkas needed to do more to reduce the number of migrants crossing without authorization, according to two people familiar with the matter.
On a separate occasion, Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, has said privately that Mr. Mayorkas needed to focus less on pleasing various factions within the White House and outside the administration, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The factions Mr. Sullivan referred to are the often opposing ideologies of White House advisers from the immigration advocacy community and those pushing for more enforcement measures.
“No one is more focused on doing their job,” Mr. Sullivan said in a statement of Mr. Mayorkas. “It’s one of the toughest jobs around. I’m behind him all the way.”
Cecilia Muñoz, former President Barack Obama’s chief domestic policy adviser, said that the idea that Mr. Mayorkas could simply do more on the border was unhelpful.
“It’s not like there’s an easy solution at hand that the secretary has simply failed to deploy,” she said.
People interviewed described Mr. Mayorkas as a pleaser, a bridge between groups with diverging philosophies, both inside and outside government.
The trait has led to Mr. Mayorkas being seen at times as a “yes man,” according to a person familiar with the matter. As a result, some say it is sometimes difficult to know where the secretary stands.
“The bridge building now after two years should be over,” said Gil Kerlikowske, a Customs and Border Protection commissioner during the Obama administration, adding that the administration should have a clear immigration policy by now.
Current and former officials say they wish Mr. Mayorkas would buck the White House’s tendency to keep immigration out of the news and talk publicly more often about the policies that are in place. Homeland security officials have been working around the clock at the border, with many detailed from other parts of the country.
An Impossible Situation
Nearly everyone The Times interviewed said Mr. Mayorkas was in a no-win situation.
“There is no amount of enforcement, deportation or incarceration the president or Secretary Mayorkas could propose that will satisfy and change Republican hearts and minds,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, the executive director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice.
Republicans are equally unhappy.
Many of them fault Mr. Mayorkas for ending some of the Trump administration’s restrictive policies that they say sent clear messages of deterrence, including building a border wall and forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while American officials consider their cases.
Those who are pushing to impeach him say Mr. Mayorkas is lying to the American public every time he says the border is secure. They point to the vote of no-confidence in him from the National Border Patrol Council, the Border Patrol’s union, which has also argued for the secretary’s resignation or impeachment.
“This man is an absolute disgrace,” the Border Patrol Council wrote on Twitter recently.
But even Mr. Comer has said Mr. Biden is ultimately to blame.
And even as the White House says there is no merit to the Republican accusations, last spring it brought in Richard A. Sauber, a former top lawyer at the Department of Veterans Affairs, to help game out potential impeachment proceedings for Mr. Mayorkas as well as other investigations the Republicans are opening into the Biden administration now that they control the House.
If Republicans have enough success in their investigations to justify holding impeachment proceedings and vote impeach him, Mr. Mayorkas would be the first cabinet secretary to be impeached since 1876. But it would take an unlikely Senate conviction to remove him from his post, which is why many of his critics want him to resign.
Mr. Mayorkas has told friends that this is most likely his last job in public service. He recently told reporters that he did not take the impeachment threats and attacks personally.
“If somebody else was in this position, do you think the vitriol would be less?” he asked.