Biden’s homeland security chief Alejandro Mayorkas impeached: What’s next?

Alejandro Mayorkas has been impeached in the House but is likely to be acquitted in the Senate as Biden calls the move unconstitutional.

Mayorkas was removed in a tight vote of 214-213 on Tuesday
Mayorkas was removed in a tight vote of 214-213 on Tuesday [File: Patrick T Fallon/AFP]

The United States House of Representatives has narrowly voted to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas after Republican politicians blamed him for unprecedented arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border.

Mayorkas has been accused of “willfully refusing” to enforce border laws and a “breach of the public trust”. This is the first time in about 150 years that a cabinet secretary has been impeached. The charges against him will likely be rejected by the Democratic-majority Senate.

Here is more about Mayorkas’s impeachment, and what’s next.

Why was Mayorkas impeached?

The impeachment is the culmination of months of Republican attacks on Mayorkas and the Democratic party for their handling of border security. More than six million refugees and migrants have arrived in the US since 2021, making immigration a key issue in the upcoming presidential election due in November.

The Republicans have accused the Biden administration of doing away with Trump’s border security policies they claim deterred migrants. They also point out that the Biden administration’s policies have attracted migrants.

Biden administration has clashed with Governor Gregg Abbott of Texas, a border state, on the immigration issue. Abbott, a Republican, has been a vocal critic of Biden’s handling of the immigration issue.

On January 28, House Republicans passed two articles, accusing Mayorkas of “presid[ing] over a reckless abandonment of border security and immigration enforcement” and “releasing hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens into the interior of the United States”, among other charges.

The secretary was deemed guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that amounted to a “willful and systemic refusal to comply with the law” on immigration and a “breach of the public trust.” They suggested that impeaching Mayorkas was the Congress’s only viable option.

An attempt by the Republican-controlled House to impeach Mayorkas on February 6 failed. Tuesday’s vote was narrowly passed by 214 to 213.

What does the impeachment mean?

Impeachment is the process under which a government official is charged for misconduct by a legislative body.

Only the House of Representatives can initiate an impeachment. The Senate, however, has the power to vote down an impeachment trial.

Under the impeachment process, Congress can charge and try a federal official for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors”. The definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” has long been contested since it has not been specified in the constitution.

The House has only ever impeached one other cabinet official – Secretary of War William Belknap in 1876 – and that was over serious corruption allegations rather than a straightforward policy disagreement.

What happens next?

For now, Mayorkas continues to retain his position as the impeachment is largely symbolic.

Mayorkas will likely be acquitted by the Democratic-controlled Senate, with with a 51-49 majority. A two-thirds majority in the Senate is required to convict someone. On the other hand, impeachment by the House demands a simple majority.

All Republicans as well as a substantial number of Democrats would have to vote to convict Mayorkas – a highly unlikely scenario.

The Senate is expected to receive the articles of impeachment from the House after resuming its session on February 26. The Senate could vote to dismiss the articles, dissolve the trial, or refer the articles to a committee.

Mayorkas has said that in case of a trial, he is ready to defend himself in the Senate and that until then, he is focusing on his job.

Who is Alejandro Mayorkas?

An immigrant himself, Mayorkas was born in Havana and arrived in the United States in 1960 after his parents fled the Cuban Revolution. He settled with his family in Southern California and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. He received his law degree from Loyola Law School in 1985.

During the administration of former President Barrack Obama, he served as deputy secretary of homeland security and director of the citizenship and immigration services.

As he worked under Obama, Mayorkas accomplished some historic firsts. He became the youngest US attorney appointed by former US President Bill Clinton in 1998 and was the highest-ranking Cuban American under Obama. He also assisted in negotiations for the first homeland security memorandum of understanding between the US and Cuba.

Mayorkas was appointed by US President Joe Biden as secretary of homeland security in 2021.

What are the reactions to his impeachment?

Biden immediately rebuked Republicans for what he termed a “blatant act of unconstitutional partisanship that has targeted an honorable public servant in order to play petty political games”.

After the vote, House Speaker Mike Johnson said, “Since this secretary refuses to do the job that the Senate confirmed him to do, the House must act”.

Democrats and many legal experts contest that Mayorkas’s impeachment is not based on an issue that meets the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors”. Instead, they argue the issue is for voters to decide since it stems from a policy dispute where Republicans are dissatisfied with Biden’s immigration policies that are implemented via Mayorkas.

They have further said that it is not Biden’s policies that attract more migrants to the southern border; the influx of migrants and refugees is merely an aspect of a multifaceted issue, where people are making risky, life-threatening escapes from rising political, economic and climate turmoil in search of a better life.

Twenty-five legal experts called the push “utterly unjustified” in an open letter and were echoed by constitutional scholars who have also spoken in Congress against Donald Trump’s impeachments.

“House Republicans will be remembered by history for trampling on the Constitution for political gain rather than working to solve the serious challenges at our border,” said Mia Ehrenberg, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security.

Ken Buck, one of three Republicans who voted no in last week’s vote, called the move against Mayorkas a “stunt” while fellow rebel Mike Gallagher said it would “pry open the Pandora’s box of perpetual impeachment”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies