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117th Congress Preview: Homeland Security

By Pamela Turner

Homeland security issues will continue to be a top priority for both the new Congress and the incoming Biden administration. This will begin with the anticipated Senate confirmation hearings for Alejandro Mayorkas, President-elect Biden’s nominee for Secretary of DHS. Mayorkas previously served as Deputy Secretary of DHS in the Obama Administration and also as Director of the Customs and Immigration Service. He was a strong proponent of the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and shares many of Biden’s immigration objectives; these include restoring DACA, ending family separation, extending Temporary Protected Status, revisiting a number of the visa decisions made by the Trump administration, and eliminating efforts to siphon money away from other departments to fund the border wall. Some of these efforts to overturn executive orders may involve further congressional or agency action and could take some time.

While Congress will look for more detailed answers on immigration plans, they will also focus on other Biden priorities including cybersecurity, COVID response, FEMA disaster programs, transportation security, efforts to prevent Chinese and other foreign interference with data security, cybersecurity event and crisis response, and climate control efforts.

In the wake of the SolarCloud incident, cybersecurity and related anti-terrorism efforts will be a major focus for DHS. Many members of Congress have called for immediate action in this area, and these responsibilities will be a shared operation with defense and intelligence agencies and the White House. It will include efforts to strengthen our own technology and resources and secure our supply chain in the case of China and others, and will involve working closely with state and local officials as well as the private sector, particularly in new technology development and in improving cyber education and training .

President-elect Biden has made COVID-19 an early priority: this will certainly involve DHS response efforts across the board, including FEMA and the Transportation Security administration.

One of Mayorkas’ first priorities will be working with the White House to fill top level Department positions, many of which are currently vacant or filled in an acting capacity. This is particularly important in the case of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

Because of its diverse missions and cultures, DHS has always been a management challenge. Mayorkas’ previous experience in the Department should be helpful in this regard. Congressional oversight of DHS has always been a challenge for the Department since multiple congressional committees claim oversight jurisdiction over the various bureaus and programs. While the House has made some effort to coordinate oversight, it remains a concern, as evidenced by House Homeland Security Chair Bennie Thompson’s recent comments regarding the need to further streamline this process.

This topline view of DHS issues will become more defined as the new Congress and administration convene to lay out their specific plans, agendas, and budget proposals. We will follow up with more focused and detailed pieces in many of these areas as they become more apparent.