At the U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for Loretta Lynch, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the next attorney general, Republican members of the Judiciary Committee took turns Wednesday grilling Lynch about her stance on Obama’s immigration policies.
But Democrats accused their colleagues across the aisle of playing political games at a hearing meant to evaluate Lynch’s qualifications.
Asked by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) whether she thought President Obama had the power to grant temporary relief from deportation for roughly five million immigrants staying in the country illegally, Lynch replied that she had no reason to “doubt the reasonableness” of the Justice Department’s legal opinions. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel reviews the legality of presidential actions, and approved Obama’s immigration executive action that was announced in November.
The president’s immigrant relief programs give the Department of Homeland Security discretion to prioritize deporting immigrants who have committed serious crimes, while deferring deportation for law-abiding immigrants who meet the programs’ other qualifications. The programs will also provide immigrants with work permits.
Lynch agreed that Obama’s proposal was a reasonable way to deal with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrant population in the country, given the limited resources of U.S. law enforcement authorities.
But she seemed to appease the Republicans by noting that the Department’s rationale for approving Obama’s executive action lacked a “legal framework.”
The questioning didn’t stop there. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) asked Lynch whether she believed it was a civil right to grant illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. Lynch replied that she felt “citizenship is a privilege that has to be earned,” and that the country’s laws lack a civil right guarantee to citizenship.
Sessions then asked whether citizens are more entitled to a job than immigrants in the country unlawfully. Lynch responded that “the right and the obligation to work is one that’s shared by everyone in this country regardless of how they came here.”
When pressed about whether it would be considered job discrimination when employers show preference in hiring citizens over unauthorized immigrants with work permits, Lynch said she had not yet studied the legalities of that, and would review the issue with the senators.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) reprimanded his colleagues for performing a “political point score exercise.” He called the Republican senators’ suggestion that Obama’s executive action was illegal “absurd” and “a myth,” comparing the deferred deportation of law-abiding immigrants with prosecutors across the country who use discretion to pursue higher-level crimes.
“The president’s immigration policies are not seeking confirmation today,” Schumer said. “This is not the time or place to vent frustration.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) expressed similar sentiment, saying the hearing “cannot be used as a soundbite of Washington political football.”
Throughout the first half of Wednesday’s hearing, the Republican members of the committee also showed displeasure with current attorney general Eric Holder, criticizing him for sticking close to Obama’s policies and disrespecting the Senate’s oversight role over the Justice Department.
Several senators asked Lynch whether they can be assured she will remain independent and not be partial to the executive branch.
Lynch promised the committee her commitment to the Constitution, and said she understood “it was a necessary obligation” to say no to the president if the law deemed his actions unlawful.
In her opening statement, Lynch—who currently serves as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York—spoke of her priorities if confirmed for the highest law enforcement position in the country.
“Few things have pained me more than the recent reports of tension and division between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” Lynch said, referring to the rift in police-community relations that deepened following police shootings of unarmed civilians in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. Public outrage over the deaths ignited protests across the country last year.
Earlier in Lynch’s career at the Eastern District, she helped prosecute a police officer who assaulted a Haitian immigrant.
She said she would work to improve relations by getting police and residents to discuss their concerns, “helping them see that we are all in this together.”
Lynch also spoke of the growing threat of cyber attacks on U.S. soil, including those launched by terrorists.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked whether she believed the NSA (National Security Agency)’s controversial terrorism surveillance program was constitutional, she answered in the affirmative, saying it was an effective tool at curbing terrorists.
But she also agreed to look into potential privacy violations in federal surveillance programs under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Some of the law’s provisions are set to expire on June 1.