On April 8, 2022, Secretary Mayorkas delivered the following remarks to the National Action Network’s annual convention:
Thank you very much, Dr. Richardson, for the very kind introduction, and good morning. I'm very honored and pleased to be here with you to share a few thoughts.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Reverend Sharpton this morning, who, of course, is there to celebrate a momentous day in our nation's history. And I shared with him that – I'm sorry, I will not be there myself – but I'll be here speaking with all of you and certainly with him, and our country in spirit as we recognize a long overdue milestone.
You know, I first heard Reverend Sharpton speak in person at the memorial service for Johnnie Cochran in Los Angeles, California.
I was the United States Attorney at the time, the lead federal prosecutor in that jurisdiction, and I had had a case with Mr. Cochran. And after our case, we built a very strong relationship. And I actually invited him into the United States Attorney's Office to speak with all of the federal prosecutors, not just about trial work – the arena in which he was so very accomplished – but also to talk about how we were perceived in the community, and he spoke very powerfully about that.
And I understood Mr. Cochran as a phenomenal trial lawyer, and an incredible man of grace.
And the Reverend at the memorial service really elevated my understanding of Mr. Cochran because the Reverend explained to me and explained to the nearly 5,000 people there, what Mr. Cochran represented, what he meant to the community.
Our legal system in America is a system of adversity. It is based on the principle of two equal authorities, two equal capabilities, taking different competing views, and then let the best view prevail through the adversity of two equal advocates.
But we know very, very well that all too often there is not equality in that system.
And what Mr. Cochran represented was, in fact, that those who too often suffer from a lack of equal representation, had that equal representation, if not better, in Mr. Cochran, and what he represented, therefore, not only to a community, but to the system of justice and the principles of our country.
And I want to speak for a few minutes about equality, the principle of equality, equity, access, justice, and fairness.
I first encountered it as a federal prosecutor, when I was an Assistant United States attorney. And I saw too many individuals who did not have that access. And I learned about its importance.
And I also learned about the importance and preciousness of opportunity, an opportunity in life, and how many who did not have it or did not understand it to be accessible found themselves in a criminal justice system – and too often, we find our society addressing its ails through a criminal justice system, rather than a system of building our youth.
Fast forward, if I may, to the time here at the Department of Homeland Security, and let me take, for example, our Federal Emergency Management Administration, FEMA.
For years, I now have learned, for years, we have had policies that have led to inequitable results. Take the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Take the aftermath of some of the natural disasters that have impacted our nation.
We take a look at our policies, and I'll give you one example. To access funds, our grant funds, to rebuild a home that has been destroyed in a natural disaster, we used to require documentation of ownership that this was indeed your home, and therefore, as a result of its destruction, you are eligible for some of our funds to rebuild that home.
And yet in certain communities – predominantly African American, Brown skin communities – houses are sometimes passed from generation to generation without the deed of trust or the paperwork that others in more privileged circumstances might have.
Because of that requirement of documentation, we all too often left individuals and families deserving of relief – we left them disenfranchised from the programs to which they had should have had equal access and were no less deserving, and no less in need, and sometimes in greater need.
And so, we have changed those policies. We have recognized... (Applause). Thank you.
A quick personal note: I appreciate the applause very much, but we do not deserve applause for that which we must do and that which is long overdue.
And so, then when Hurricane Ida hit that very same community, we were actually able to extend the hand to those who deserved and needed the relief. And that is what it is all about – it is all about achieving equity, which is really the core founding principle of our country.
And as we continue to review the policies and make the changes that drive to achieve equity, we have to be very mindful of the landscape on which we are working.
We are working at a time when we are seeing only an increase in hate. Or I should say perhaps, only an increase in the hate that is rising to the surface. And what we, in the Department of Homeland Security, have assessed it that the greatest terrorism-related threat that we face in the homeland is a threat of domestic violent extremism: individuals drawn to violence because of ideologies of hate or false narratives propagated on social media and other online platforms.
And the most prominent threat is the threat of white supremacists. And that came quite clearly to the surface when we saw over the past several months repeated and persistent bomb threats against Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
And we reached out in the Department to the presidents of the HBCUs and requested that we be allowed to sit around the table with them to listen to what they were confronting, to understand the gravity of the threat that they faced, its impact on their communities of students, faculties, families, neighbors and like, and to be able to respond as they needed us to do – to have them around the table.
Just a few weeks ago, I was in Detroit, Michigan, meeting with faith leaders, predominantly African-American faith leaders, talking about our grant program, our Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which is designed to protect houses of worship, places of faith, other nonprofit organizations, to enable them to secure themselves against an increasing threat landscape.
What I learned was that our grant program is very complicated. It is very difficult in some respects to access. And some of these organizations, also, just as much in need, and perhaps in greater need of the funds that we have to distribute, don't have the resources to have a grant applicant professional; don't have the luxury of capacity to understand our processes, work through them, and know how to access the funds.
And so that voice, by sitting around the table, was heard loud and clear. And then becomes the directive that we must follow.
How can we break down those barriers? How can we deliver to these houses of worship in need, these faith-based organizations, these community organizations? How can we build for them the capacity that they might not otherwise have, so that they can access the resources of the United States government equally and with equity?
And that is the ethic that defines this Department of Homeland Security, at this time and hopefully for the future to come. It is all about partnership. It is all about being at the table with you in understanding the needs, the challenges, and defining the opportunities together and working to realize them together.
Because the question – and I harken back to the time that I spoke with Mr. Cochran – and I asked of him, you know, “what is the perception in the community of us? Because when I am the United States Attorney in the Central District of California, I am the United States Attorney for everyone, not just some.”
And so, we, as a Department of Homeland Security, are your Department of Homeland Security as much as anyone else's and we need to live that in the equity that we demonstrate and the equity that we live for a better world.
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity.