Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch said Wednesday she mostly supports President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, an issue likely to become a sticking point with Senate Republicans as her nomination moves forward.
“I thought the legal opinion was reasonable,” Ms. Lynch said at a hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, adding that the president’s actions were a “reasonable way to marshal limited resources to deal with the problem.”
“I did find it to be responsible that we prioritize removal, particularly those who are involved in violent crime, terrorism, recent crossers,” she said.
Her comments brought swift condemnation from several committee Republicans who have sought to overturn the president’s actions that they view as unconstitutional and who focused much of their questioning Wednesday on the topic.
“It goes way beyond the law,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. “It goes clearly to allowing someone to work who’s unlawfully in America, to take jobs. It gives them a right to Social Security, it gives them a number, with rights to participate in other programs like Medicare.”
After Wednesday’s hearing, Mr. Sessions issued a statement saying he would oppose Ms. Lynch’s nomination.
Mr. Obama’s executive action late last year put on hold the deportation of millions of illegal immigrants. Republican senators criticized Ms. Lynch’s assertion that it was an endeavor to allow border patrol agents to focus on dangerous criminals before turning their attention to other illegal immigrants.
“His action goes well beyond setting prosecutorial priorities,” said Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, adding that it was “troubling” Ms. Lynch seemed to support the president’s “illegal, unconstitutional, executive amnesty.”
Committee Democrats largely tried to steer debate away from immigration and keep it on Ms. Lynch’s history and performance as a U.S. Attorney in New York.
“The president’s immigration policies are not seeking confirmation today,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat. “Loretta Lynch is.”
Mr. Schumer also said he supports the president’s hold on deportations, saying it will allow border security agents to focus on the most dangerous illegal immigrants.
“They have to make hard choices, and a straightforward allocation of resources is not political advocacy,” he said. “We have limited resources. It makes sense to go over the hardened criminals before going after low level offenders.”
Other Democrats argued that outside issues should have no bearing on Ms. Lynch’s qualifications.
“She is the nomination for attorney general and that is why I’m focusing on her,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.
Sen. Christopher Coons, Delaware Democrat, said that “the attorney general often serves as a lightning rod for those with complaints about this administration.”
Despite the debate about immigration, Republicans will likely not reject Ms. Lynch based on that issue alone, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
“I think that the GOP is furious about the Obama order, and she is bearing the brunt of that now,” Mr. Tobias said. “They have focused on it because it is a way to get at Obama’s policy and [the Justice Department] does address a number of legal issues involving immigration.”
The issue is likely not over, Mr. Tobias said, as a Justice Department under Ms. Lynch would likely be called upon to support or oppose other White House efforts on immigration.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and committee chairman, said the Obama administration “is not prioritizing the removal of criminal aliens very well.”
“In fiscal year 2013, the administration released from its custody 36,000 aliens who had been convicted of a crime, instead of removing them,” he said. “According to the Department of Homeland Security, 1,000 of these aliens have already been convicted of another crime since their release.”
Mr. Grassley read a list of some of the offenses, which included terrorist threats, assaults with deadly weapons, robberies, rapes and lewd acts with children.
“If confirmed, my statement to you very simply is: you need to take a look at that policy,” Mr. Grassley told Ms. Lynch, urging her to do better.
Mr. Sessions said he wants more answers on whether the Justice Department will prosecute businesses who hire illegal immigrants: “Who has more right to a job in this country a lawful immigrant … or a citizen or a person who entered the country illegally?”
But Ms. Lynch said her understanding of the law is that it does not automatically grant illegal immigrants a right to work, and that “the president is as limited by law as every citizen.”