Immigration in focus as U.S. Senate confronts Trump nominees

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By Julia Edwards Ainsley | WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON Immigration and domestic security,
key themes in Donald Trump’s successful campaign, will likely
dominate two U.S. Senate hearings on Tuesday as lawmakers begin
several days of questioning the president-elect’s Cabinet
nominees.

First to appear before lawmakers will be Trump’s pick for
attorney general, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Sessions, a close ally of Trump, helped shape his
pro-enforcement, anti-amnesty policy on illegal immigration.

Next will be John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general
tapped to head the Department of Homeland Security. In earlier
congressional testimony, Kelly 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, force Mexico to pay for it and 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 PROSECUTOR

The 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.

Roy Beck, president and founder of NumbersUSA, which
advocates a reduction in illegal and legal immigration, endorsed
Sessions in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman
Charles Grassley.

“Sessions always has made immigration decisions based on
protecting the economic interests of hard-working women and men
whose incomes and very jobs have been threatened by the desire
of various business lobbies to increase the foreign labor
competition in their occupations,” Beck wrote in a Jan. 3
letter.

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, including
testimony that he called an African-American prosecutor “boy,”
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. He has also
opposed attempts to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent drug
offenders. (additional reporting by Dustin Volz and Ian Simpson)



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