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Biden Picks A Cuban-American LA Attorney To Reverse Trump's Hard-Line Immigration Policies

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Alejandro Mayorkas speaks onstage during Festival PEOPLE En Español 2015 in New York City. (Brad Barket/Getty Images)
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President-elect Biden's pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security was an infant when his family fled Cuba and eventually settled in Beverly Hills.

If confirmed by the Senate, Alejandro "Ali" Mayorkas would be the first Latino and first foreign-born DHS Secretary, in charge of a sprawling portfolio that includes border security and immigration enforcement.

"While DHS affects everyone, given its critical role in immigration matters, I'm proud that for the first time ever, the department will be led by an immigrant, a Latino, who knows that we are a nation of laws and values," Biden said today at a press conference to announce Mayorkas and other top national security and foreign policy nominees.

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Biden added his cabinet choices "reflect the idea that we cannot meet these challenges with old thinking and unchanged habits."

Advocacy groups welcomed Mayorkas' nomination.

"We are a country of immigrants, and we need leaders that reflect our values to enact bold and systemic changes to get us closer to a more just and inclusive society," said Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, CEO of the Latino Community Foundation.

Mayorkas was the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, where he spearheaded federal prosecutions in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, and five other surrounding counties. He later steered U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama Administration and helped craft the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).

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The pick sends a message to DACA recipients, who have watched outgoing President Trump try to dismantle the program, said Angélica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights L.A.

"What the Biden and Harris administration are saying is they are extremely serious about returning these young people to the legal status that they deserve," Salas said. "Instead of living a life of survival they will finally be able to thrive in the country that has always been their home."

Mayorkas' legal colleagues also applauded the news of his nomination.

"Ali is a proud son of Los Angeles, and he's a product of L.A. having done much of his schooling and professional life here," said David Marcus, a partner in the law firm WilmerHale and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney during Mayorkas' time at the Department of Justice.

"He has a way of making people feel like they matter," Marcus added. "And that's because to Ali, every person does matter."

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The new DHS chief will have a lengthy to-do list: Biden has pledged to reverse a slew of hard-line Trump administration policies, including eliminating the "public charge" rule, restoring the asylum claims process, expanding the number of refugees the U.S. accepts annually (reduced by more than 80% under Trump), and rescinding the ban on travel from several Muslim countries.

"Ali will have the opportunity to right the ship," said former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. Mayorkas was number two at the department during Napolitano's and Jeh Johnson's tenures.

"[DHS] is a behemoth, and it's a management challenge," Napolitano said. "He can take hold of the reins quickly and begin to restore the department to what it was originally envisioned to be."

"This is a good day for people who want a reversal of all the harm the Trump administration has caused to our immigrant community," Salas said.

In a tweet, Mayorkas pledged to "work to restore faith in our institutions, and protect our security."