CITY OF WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 9, 2021)—Secretary Mayorkas delivered remarks at the American Constitution Society’s 2021 Virtual National Convention.
Read the Remarks:
Thank you very much for the beautiful introduction that I will try to live up to and congratulations to you for all that you have accomplished, including your graduation from law school. Natasha referenced my upbringing. Let me start off by commenting on that. My parents, my mother and father, brought me to this country when I was almost one year old in an effort to escape communism and [have] the opportunity to raise their children in a democracy.
My father lost his country of origin, his home, his small business, and really everything that he had planned for his young family. It was a second time in my mother’s life that she became a refugee. She fled Nazi Europe during the Second World War. And so I grew up with a very strong sense of my identity as a refugee and what it means to be displaced fundamentally in one’s life.
When I became the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama-Biden Administration, I traveled to Kenya, to Nairobi, to see the refugee services there. And in the course of that trip, we took a small plane to the Kenyan-Somali border to visit the refugee camp of Dadaab, which was at that time the most under strain, under resourced, and most dangerous refugee camp in the world. And as we took the plane from Nairobi to Dadaab, all one can see for miles and miles and miles was desert. And when we arrived at the camp, I could not understand how people, families with small children, even individuals without family could arrive safely to the camp, traversing that barren desert, with nothing on their backs. But they managed to do so. And I saw families sleeping on the desert sand with either a paper bag or a plastic bag over their head as roofing and nothing else. And when the sunset, the pitch dark, settled in, there was no electricity. And food was shipped in twice a week.
I sat in on interview with a family that was hoping to seek refuge in the United States and one of the immigration officers in the agency that I led was interviewing the family, a mother, a father, and four children, the eldest of whom was 17 years of age. And the refugee officer asked that young woman, the eldest of the children, where she was born. That was the first question that was posed to her. And she looked puzzled at the refugee officer, and said, “I was, I was born here. I was born here.” And for 17 years of her entire life, she had known nothing but sleeping on the sand, under a paper or plastic bag, having food shipped in.
And I returned to the States asking a lot of fundamental questions, certainly about whether we could define ourselves as a civilized world or not, but also asking questions about myself and whether I was indeed a refugee in the most profound sense of the term, how could I liken myself, or use that title, when I had just experienced or seen what I had seen, and the question of identity became much more profoundly important to me as an individual, as a son, as a brother, and as a father, and husband. But it also became very important to me, as a leader of an organization. And the issue of identity became the central question when we were wrestling with policy issues.
When we consider a particular policy question before us, doesn’t the answer help define our identity? Who we are, and more importantly, who we want to be? And so I asked, when we were in fact confronting difficult policy questions, the question of identity. What, as we struggled to reach an answer, what would the answer say about who we are and who we want to be? And I think that there are two foundational or guiding principles that really drive the answer.
One is the concept, or actually, the element of dignity. And the other is the rule of law. Those are two foundational guideposts as I seek to lead an agency, as we, as servants of the law, seek to bring justice in whatever we do. And here in the Department of Homeland Security, I think that must guide everything that we do. And I think that thus far, we’ve had some very significant successes. But we also have confronted and will confront challenges. And I want to speak about the issue of identity, the guiding principles of dignity, and the rule of law in a few of the mission sets that we have, and share with you my thoughts in that regard.
Just to bring this to life. In the issue of immigration, I think that we are trying to ensure that the lives of the families that were separated in the prior administration reflect the dignity that they have always had, and that we then failed to recognize. And so we are reuniting the families with the sense of urgency that that mission deserves. In looking at our detention facilities that involve considerable and challenging issues, there were at least two that I studied, that I felt did not respect the dignity of the individuals who were in custody. And so we closed them. Individuals who are subject to removal under our immigration laws still must be treated with the dignity that they deserve as human beings, and the treatment of them that we were engaged in did not reflect that fundamental fact.
Sometimes language is so very, very important. I happen to think it’s always important, but in the immigration space, we issue a directive that the term “illegal aliens” should not be used unless one is citing to the particular statutory language that exists. But we should refer to those individuals as “non-citizens” to reflect that their lawful presence, or their unlawful presence in the United States does not define their dignity as individuals.
In the area of challenge, we are dealing with an immigration system in which we address the legal rights and responsibilities of children who very well may not be represented by counsel. And I find it, frankly abhorrent that we can proceed to remove a child who does not have counsel by her or his side. And so that, to me, reflects not only a failure to respect the dignity of that child, but it also speaks to the fact that our system as a whole lacks dignity, in that regard.
We’ve made an inroad. We promulgated recently a guidance for the lawyers in the [ICE] Office of the Principal Legal Advisor to make sure that that lawyer on behalf of the government brings justice in that immigration court. And justice means making sure that the rights of that child are brought forward when there was no one by that child’s side to do that for that child, for instance. When we speak of the rule of law, I think uppermost in my mind, in addition to those few things that I’ve mentioned, is the prior administration’s public charge rule: the fact that individuals who are seeking immigration benefits, as the law provides, may render themselves in eligible by seeking public benefits, that the law also provides them. And I felt, and we collectively in the Department felt, that the rescission of that rule would not only restore dignity to the process, but adhere to the rule of law. The Executive Branch is granted certain discretionary authority, the law so provides. And so we reinstituted and are strengthening the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program.
What I think means bringing meaning and action to the rule of law. It’s not only in the area of immigration that I think these fundamental questions are brought to the fore. As we take a look at our security, our national security or homeland security, enterprise and in the security arena, specifically, I have articulated previously that I think the greatest threat, terrorism related threat, that we face in the homeland is domestic violent extremism.
Need not we, as the Department of Homeland Security, as a key federal player in this effort to combat domestic violent extremism, must we not exhibit the very dignity that we hope our communities embrace and exemplify? And so I directed an internal review of our workforce and our practices to make sure that no one within our own midst engages in such domestic violent extremism. I am mindful, of course, and guided by the First Amendment principles that our Constitution grounds so deeply in our lives and in the fabric of our country.
But it is not without any limitation. And so for example, an individual who is exercising immigration enforcement activities or rights, has to be mindful that the articulation of ideologies of hate directed [toward] immigrants could, or will, impair the integrity of that officer’s actions. And we have a responsibility to make sure that that integrity is unencroached and has the confidence of the public. When we speak of domestic violent extremism, the rule of law dictates that we cannot encroach upon the First Amendment right. People have the constitutional right to articulate ideologies no matter how pernicious or offensive we might find them. But we are focused not on the articulation of those ideologies, but the connectivity between those ideologies and acts of violence.
Even in the battle against COVID, issues of dignity are foremost in our efforts. We are dealing with communities that suffer tremendous inequities that are often disenfranchised. One of the foundational principles that President Biden has articulated in the dissemination of vaccines and the extension of a helping hand, is to make sure that the concept of equity is achieved. That no community and no individual is disenfranchised in being able to access the vaccine. And so we, through FEMA and our federal partners, have gone into those communities and ensured our accessibility to those communities to ensure that not only our efforts but their needs receive the dignity they deserve.
We must deliver on these foundational principles, not alone and not unilaterally but in concert with public we serve. We were very, very concerned and, because of the empiricism before us, of the burdens and barriers that the prior administration imposed on people’s access to immigration benefits to which they could qualify under the law. And so what we did was we issued a request for information from the communities we serve, from the public with respect to how we can overcome those burdens, how we can eliminate those barriers, and we received more than 7,000 responses, and we will engage with the public and we will review those responses so that we can collectively achieve that mission.
In the government, we have the privilege of seeking to make systemic change, to bring dignity, or I should say, to reflect in what we do, reflect the dignity of the people we serve on a very impactful and systemic basis. But we cannot forget that the rule of law, that the law as an instrument of delivering dignity, can bring that to the single individual. And we cannot understate the importance of doing so. And I think that sometimes the impact on one individual can reverberate throughout an entire institution and bring systemic change.
And I want to read to you, as my final words, a note that we received at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to speak of the impact on an individual to communicate what we can do to ensure that throughout our actions, we recognize and respect the dignity of every individual, and what it means to administer the rule of law in the best traditions of our country, and in adherence to the principles of our Constitution.
“Dear Mrs. Officer, I want to inform you that I received a letter of approval in regards for my application in this great humanitarian country. Madam, I want to thank you, and thank this great nation, for giving me a chance to find a refuge for my life, and to protect me from being harmed, and from death. I want to show my endless appreciation and deepest regards to you, and your time and consideration to help and save me and protect me in a way that made me feel that I’m human, with rights to live, and have a future. May God bless you for being my guardian angel. And may God bless America for saving me. In addition, I want to express my family’s thanks, especially my mom, who wants to tell you that she wouldn’t forget you in her prayers, and their appreciation for saving a son and a brother. And I wouldn’t forget you as long as I live. And I wish that I will be given a chance to repay the United States of America for its protection.”
The fundamental principle of dignity and the rule of law as an instrument. Thanks so much.