Head of U.S. legal immigration system wins high marks from advocates for immigrants


On a recent afternoon, the head of the nation’s legal immigration system opened himself to a cascade of complaints from more than 300 attorneys, immigrant advocates and others at a teleconference based at the Western regional headquarters of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Laguna Niguel.

The visa process is arbitrary and inconsistent, he was repeatedly told. The forms are obtuse, the demands for evidence excessive. The agency exudes a “culture of no” biased against visa petitions.

Agency director Alejandro Mayorkas listened intently, with nary a twitch of annoyance.

“I have articulated within the agency that we should not shirk from criticism,” he said. “We should just work very, very hard not to deserve it.”

Eight months into the job, Mayorkas, 50, is drawing high marks from those who have long battled the immigration system. With 18,000 employees in 250 offices across the world, his agency oversees all immigration benefits, including petitions for citizenship and green cards; work, student and family visas; asylum; refugee status; and humanitarian relief.

Immigrant advocates particularly praise the Cuban immigrant and former U.S. attorney in Los Angeles for bringing greater openness and transparency to the agency with frequent community meetings. After the Haiti earthquake, for instance, the office coordinated dozens of meetings reaching 16,400 people to disseminate information on how Haitians in the United States could apply for permission to stay here until their homeland had stabilized.

Mayorkas also has invited the public, along with his staff, to weigh in on his latest initiative: an unprecedented, top-to-bottom review of all agency policies to make sure they are consistent and fair. Nearly 8,000 people have submitted responses.

Rosalind Gold of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund said Mayorkas not only listens but also follows up. After numerous complaints were lodged about the process to apply for fee waivers, she said, the agency developed a new application form and more uniform standards.

“We’ve been extremely impressed by his willingness to reach out, listen to our concerns and engage in thoughtful discussion,” Gold said.

The director has also pleased immigration hawks by beefing up his fraud detection unit with new technology, more anti-fraud officers and more frequent site visits to check out applicants for business visas.

Some fear, however, that the aggressive effort is having unintended negative consequences. Robert P. Deasy, a spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., has said that many of his organization’s business clients are complaining that denial rates for visa applications appear to be on the rise even for legitimate applicants.

That complaint was repeatedly voiced at the recent Laguna Niguel teleconference. Attorneys described case after case of applying for visas to bring outstanding research scientists, artists and entertainers here, only to be denied or plied with requests for more evidence of their talent.

“The frustration in the field is higher than it’s ever been,” said one caller from New Jersey, who said he represented pharmaceutical, engineering and accounting firms.

Despite the at-times tough moments, Mayorkas dismissed an aide’s attempts to cut off questioning and took on several more queries. Even when the session came to a close, he lingered in the crowd, shaking more hands, listening to more concerns with an intimate, approachable manner.

“I go by Ali, by the way,” he told one attorney. “We share a vision.”

As U.S. attorney, he managed to win praise from both the defense bar and law enforcement. Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss called him “personable and sweet” despite his prosecution of her, while Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, Sheriff Lee Baca and LAPD Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz were among several law-enforcement officials who wrote letters supporting his appointment to the agency job.

Born in Havana, Mayorkas was just a year old when his family arrived in Miami after the 1959 Cuban revolution. His family moved to Los Angeles three years later. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1981 and earned his law degree from Loyola Law School in 1985.

After three years in private practice, he joined the federal government as an assistant U.S. attorney in 1989. His work included developing a new training program after the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart police corruption scandal.

At 39, he became the youngest U.S. attorney in the nation, supervising cases on public corruption, immigration, narcotics trafficking and money laundering in Southern California. He also established a civil rights division to prosecute hate crimes.

His biggest stumble may have been his involvement in successful efforts to seek a pardon for drug dealer Carlos Vignali, which he later called “a mistake.”

When he got the call for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services job, Mayorkas said he was thrilled, for both professional and personal reasons.

“The work of the agency is of fundamental importance to the nation, but it’s also a very meaningful issue to my family,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mayorkas’ fiscal management of the agency has become particularly important as revenue drops — in 2009, by 15% or $345 million — as fewer people apply for immigration benefits and pay the application fees that largely finance the agency. While Congress appropriated $55 million for asylum and refugee cases to help relieve the financial strain, Mayorkas said more funds will be needed, especially if Congress enacts comprehensive immigration reform.

Without more congressional funds, he said, the agency may have to raise application fees again for immigration benefits. Fees were hiked in 2007, including a 69% increase to $675 for naturalization petitions, an action that critics say has put citizenship out of reach for many eligible immigrants. A fee review will be released later this year, he said.