The first major showdown over President Obama’s deportation amnesty will come Tuesday when the Senate votes on whether to confirm Sarah R. Saldana, the president’s pick to run the interior immigration service, who would be charged with seeing through much of his amnesty.
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Ms. Saldana, a federal prosecutor in Texas, told Congress she supports Mr. Obama’s policies and defended them as constitutional — a stance that has irked many Republican senators, who are rallying to try to block her ascendance to run U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
She also said that some illegal immigrants have earned the right to be citizens and that she was “not familiar” with ICE’s statistics showing a steep drop in the number of illegal immigrants being deported from the interior of the U.S.
“Sarah Saldana, if confirmed to head ICE, will be a key player, a key participant in the administration, furthering this policy that’s a bad policy,” said Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, who plans to join his colleagues in a filibuster attempt Tuesday.
Ms. Saldana is one of about two dozen nominees Democrats are trying to push through the Senate before they lose control of the chamber at the end of this year. On Monday, Senate Democrats confirmed Vivek Hallegere Murthy to be surgeon general, overcoming bipartisan opposition to him.
The Saldana nomination is the most controversial of the bunch.
Democrats need to muster only a majority to overcome the Republican-led filibuster, thanks to a rules change that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, pushed through late last year. Ms. Saldana is exactly the type of case Mr. Reid had in mind when he made the change — a nominee who is unlikely to get much bipartisan backing but whom the administration has deemed to be politically critical.
Hispanic advocacy groups have encouraged Ms. Saldana’s confirmation to a high level in the Obama administration.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said Republicans were hypocritical in calling for stiffer border security but funding the Homeland Security Department piecemeal, and trying to block the president’s pick to run deportations and interior immigration enforcement.
“First, they don’t fund the agency; second, they won’t fill the position responsible for enforcing the law,” Mr. Durbin said.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the Delaware Democrat who shepherded Ms. Saldana’s nomination through the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said attacking Ms. Saldana won’t stop the president’s plans.
“It does not punish the president to leave this position unfilled,” Mr. Carper said. “I believe the president is acting within the bounds of the law in enacting his executive action, but whether you agree with me or not, opposing Ms. Saldana’s nomination will do nothing to change what the president has done — nothing.”
Immigration has come to dominate much of the end-of-year business on Capitol Hill, with opposition to the president’s amnesty causing a rebellion that threatened a government funding package. That bill ended up passing Saturday, but only after Republicans pushed the amnesty fight to early next year.
On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson traveled to Texas to defend the amnesty, saying it will give agents a chance to focus on the border, rather than worrying about most illegal immigrants now in the U.S.
He said that should help prevent the kind of surge of illegal immigration that many Republicans predict as a result of Mr. Obama’s amnesty.
“The message should be clear: As a result of our new emphasis on the security of the southern border, it will now be more likely that you will be apprehended; it will now be more likely that you will be detained and sent back; and it will now be more likely that your hard-earned money to smuggle a family member to the United States will be seized and will never reach its intended source,” Mr. Johnson said at the site of a new facility designed to hold illegal immigrant families.
As head of Homeland Security, Mr. Johnson would be Ms. Saldana’s boss.
Ms. Saldana won her post as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas in a unanimous vote in 2011, but her immigration stances have made this go-around tougher.
In her testimony to Congress, Ms. Saldana toed the administration’s line on immigration, saying she agreed that the president has the authority to grant a blanket deportation amnesty as long as applicants have to file applications for it.
“I believe that the president of the United States, as others before him, has the legal authority to take action to address areas within the purview of the executive branch, on a case-by-case basis,” she said in her written responses.
She wouldn’t commit to keeping Operation Streamline, a program that authorities say helped dramatically cut illegal immigration in southwestern Arizona, instead promising to “become much more familiar with the actual effectiveness of this initiative from the agency’s perspective.”
Republicans accused her of ducking important questions and Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, called some of her answers “unclear and unhelpful.”
He sent a list of follow-up questions designed to prod her on how she would see through Mr. Obama’s amnesty. She hadn’t responded to those questions as of Monday evening, less than 24 hours before the Senate was to vote on her nomination.
“I was disappointed when I asked you about your position on a number of issues and in response I received nonresponsive answers that are vague calls upon the law,” Mr. Grassley said. “I expect you to enforce the law if confirmed to this position, and apply the law as it is currently enacted.”
If confirmed, Ms. Saldana will face an agency in crisis. ICE ranks second to last out of 314 federal agencies in the most recent survey of employee satisfaction.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said Mr. Obama’s policies are part of the problem.
“Every officer out there knows what’s happening. They’re being directed not to do their duty,” he said.