Immigration in focus as U.S. Senate hears from Trump nominees

Kevin Lamarque—Reuters
U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) is sworn in to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. attorney general on Capitol Hill in Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Republican Senator Jeff Sessions faced interruptions and questions on his ability to be independent and go against Donald Trump if necessary as the first confirmation hearing for the president-elect’s Cabinet nominees got under way on Tuesday.Sessions, nominated to be attorney general, became the first sitting senator to endorse Trump for the presidency in early 2016 and has remained a close advisor on issues such as immigration.Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein said the Senate Judiciary Committee has received letters from 400 civil rights organizations opposing his confirmation to the country’s top law enforcement post.”This job requires service to the people and the law, not the president,” Feinstein said.”There is a deep fear about what a Trump administration will bring in many places. And this is the context in which we must consider Senator Sessions’ record and nomination,” Feinstein added.Protesters repeatedly interrupted the start of Sessions’ hearing, some dressed in KKK robes and another holding a sign that said “Support Civil Rights, Stop Sessions.”Sessions was denied confirmation to a federal judgeship in 1986 after allegations emerged that he made racist remarks, including testimony that he called an African-American prosecutor “boy,” an allegation Sessions denied.Sessions, 70, is being questioned by the judiciary committee, a panel on which he serves, and is widely expected to be confirmed by the Republican-dominated Senate. But his record on civil rights and immigration was likely to make for a contentious hearing.Speaking in Sessions’ favor, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, considered a moderate, said she has “every confidence that Jeff Sessions will execute the office of AG honestly, faithfully and fully in the pursuit of justice.”Sessions began hearings Tuesday with protesters dressed like members of the Klu Kux Klan demonstrating their opposition to his nomination. Sessions is a close ally of Trump and helped shape his pro-enforcement, anti-amnesty policy on illegal immigration. Sessions’ colleagues in the Senate say he is well-respected, productive and fair.”Over the last two years, I’ve had the pleasure of calling Senator Sessions my friend and colleague,” said said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “While Senator Sessions and I certainly don’t agree on the specifics of every major issue, including immigration reform and criminal justice reform, he always expresses our policy differences in the form of productive and gracious exchanges of ideas. From my experience working with him on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, I consider him to be hands-down one of the fairest and most accessible chairmen of any congressional committee.””As Attorney General, he will follow the rule of law, be accessible, and address the organizational and accountability issues plaguing the Department of Justice, which are qualities and priorities that have unfortunately been missing from the department’s leadership over the last eight years,” said Tillis. John Kelly also faces confirmation hearings Tuesday. A retired four-star Marine general tapped to head the Department of Homeland Security, Kelly has characterized inadequate policing of the U.S.-Mexico border as a national security threat.Both men will face questions from Democrats and Republicans seeking specifics on Trump’s plans following his Jan. 20 inauguration to crack down on illegal immigration – an issue central to his explosion onto the political scene, but on which he has since wavered in some ways.On the campaign trail, Trump promised to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, said Mexico will pay for it and said he would deport 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.But since he was elected president on Nov. 8, the New York businessman has said part of the wall could be a fence, Congress should fund it with the expectation that Mexico will repay U.S. taxpayers, and that he will focus on deporting immigrants with criminal records and later decide what to do with others.Both Sessions and Kelly will be major players in immigration policy. In addition to counterterrorism, the Homeland Security secretary oversees immigration enforcement and has discretion over which categories of immigrants are arrested and deported.AMERICA’S TOP PROSECUTORThe attorney general is the nation’s top prosecutor and legal adviser to the president. As head of the Justice Department, the attorney general also oversees the immigration court system that decides whether immigrants are deported or granted asylum or some other kind of protection.”Sessions was a close adviser to Trump. … They’re going to ask, ‘How are you going to use your position to further the president’s agenda?'” said Elizabeth Taylor, a former staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee who advised Republicans during Eric Holder’s nomination to be Democratic President Barack Obama’s first attorney general.”But,” Taylor added, “historically, attorney general nominees are also asked if they’re willing to stand up to the president.”In 2015, Republicans held up the nomination of Loretta Lynch, the current attorney general, for 166 days, longer than any nominee in 30 years, over her support for Obama’s executive actions on immigration.Sessions, 70, and Kelly, 66, are widely expected to be confirmed by the Republican-dominated Senate, but their hearings could be contentious.Sessions, who has represented the deeply conservative Southern state of Alabama for 20 years, has a long, consistent record of opposing legislation that provides a path to citizenship for immigrants. He has also been a close ally of groups seeking to restrict legal immigration by placing limits on visas used by companies to hire foreign workers.Civil liberties groups have raised concerns about Sessions’ record on immigration and other positions, including government surveillance, civil rights and marijuana legalization.He was denied confirmation to a federal judgeship in 1986 after allegations emerged that he made racist remarks, an allegation Sessions denied.The American Civil Liberties Union’s legal director will testify at Sessions’ confirmation hearing and “raise significant, serious questions about his hostility to civil rights and civil liberties,” the organization said in a statement. The group said it is making an exception to its longstanding policy of not interfering with federal nominations in this case.On Monday, a group of civil liberties and internet freedom groups sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee describing Sessions as a “leading proponent of expanding the government’s surveillance authority of ordinary Americans.”Sessions has long condemned marijuana use, which has been legalized for recreational use in eight U.S. states and the District of Columbia but remains banned by federal law. As attorney general, Sessions would have the power to intervene in states that are not in compliance with federal law.