By Seung Min Kim
December 16, 2014
The Senate confirmed a top Obama administration immigration official on Tuesday with near-unanimous GOP opposition — the first time Republicans have taken out their furor over President Barack Obama’s immigration executive actions against a nominee.
The vote to install Sarah Saldana, currently the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, as the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement was 55-39. She’ll oversee one of the three key agencies under the Department of Homeland Security that handle immigration.
Saldana appeared to be on a relatively smooth road to confirmation earlier this year, when her nomination sailed through the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and her home-state senator, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), gave her a warm reception as he introduced her during her confirmation hearing.
But then President Barack Obama went through with his executive-action pledge to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportations and grants them three-year work permits. Senate Republicans quizzed Saldana in a written questionnaire whether she supported the unilateral actions, and she responded that she did.
“I believe that the president of the United States, as others before him, has legal authority to take executive action to address areas within the purview of the executive branch,” Saldana wrote to Senate Republicans.
Once her nomination came up before the Senate Judiciary Committee, all GOP senators on the panel voted against her, including immigration reform advocates such as Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said this week that Saldana’s “answer reflects a remarkable disregard for the rule of law that demonstrates the difficulty she’ll have as being the leader of this important ICE agency.”
“Although I respect her and respect her record of public service, including an admirable and independent streak that she demonstrated as U.S. attorney, I’m concerned that she’s also demonstrated that her commitment to the rule of law may falter where the Immigration and Nationality Act is concerned,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Only two Republicans supported Saldana’s confirmation — Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
The Republican opposition against Saldana over the controversial executive actions also underscores how immigration will be a central issue in the confirmation of Brooklyn prosecutor Loretta Lynch for attorney general.
As ICE director, Saldana will play a key role in implementing one element of Obama’s executive actions – refocusing enforcement priorities to go after immigrants who are suspected of major criminal activity and recent border-crossers.
Senate Democrats vented their frustration against Republicans, noting that the GOP weren’t dismissing Saldana’s credentials and resume but that they opposed her solely on the grounds of Obama’s actions. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, noting that after Republicans successfully forced short-term funding of the Department of Homeland Security, they were opposing a person charged with carrying out immigration enforcement, adding: “If you think that this is hard to understand or follow, imagine what we’ve seen over the last two years.”
“We cannot judge the qualifications of Sarah Saldaña to run Immigration and Customs Enforcement based solely on the fact that she agrees with the policy decisions of the President who nominated her,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said Tuesday. “That is an absurd and completely illogical standard.”
The Senate was also set to take up the nomination of White House adviser Tony Blinken to be deputy secretary of State later Tuesday.
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