The U.S. Senate Tuesday confirmed Texas prosecutor Sarah Saldaña to head the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a role that will put her at the forefront of implementing the policies President Barack Obama announced in his recent executive actions on immigration.
Saldaña, who becomes the first Latina woman to head the agency, was the most controversial out of the slate of administration nominees who appeared before the U.S. Senate in the past week. But on Tuesday afternoon, senators voted 55-39 in her favor, with no Democrats in opposition. Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma (who is retiring) and Orrin Hatch of Utah also voted for Saldaña.
ICE has not had a permanent director since John Morton stepped down in mid-2013. Since then, the agency has gone through two acting directors as the administration, clashing with Republicans in Congress, has been unable to fill Morton’s spot.
That was until September, when Saldaña was nominated for the job, enjoying warm words of support from lawmakers on both sides, including high-ranking Republican John Cornyn of her home state of Texas. During that hearing, Saldaña was portrayed as a vigorous enforcer of the law, based on her experience with a U.S. Attorney’s Office in Texas and high-profile corruption case against a Dallas County commissioner.
“If respect for the rule of law is our standard, and I think it should be, we would be hard-pressed to find a person more qualified to enforce the law than Ms. Saldaña,” Cornyn said at the time, calling her “tough,” “smart” and “independent.”
But that friendly tone came before Obama announced executive action to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation and offer them authorization to work. Saldaña wrote in a questionnaire submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee that she supported the president’s move.
“I believe that the president of the United States, as others before him, has legal authority to take executive action to address areas within the purview of the executive branch,” she wrote, according to Politico. “It is my understanding that the recently announced executive action pertaining to immigration was reviewed, shaped, and considered by a number of people in whom I have great confidence, including Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder.”
The Republican backlash against Obama’s immigration action then turned against Saldaña herself, with GOP lawmakers backtracking on their earlier support. “If she is determined to help the president implement this deeply flawed executive action and refuse to enforce the law that Congress has written and has been signed by previous presidents, I can’t support her nomination,” Cornyn said, according to the Washington Post. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Saldana's confirmation would be "another rubber stamp for illegal amnesty."
Tuesday’s vote was likely Saldaña’s last, best shot at the ICE director position as the Democrats’ majority in the Senate comes to a close. Had the vote been delayed until January, as some lawmakers had pushed for, her chances would have been slim in a Republican-dominated Congress still seething over the president’s unilateral move to enact deportation relief.
But even though Saldaña emerged with the job in hand, the hard part may just be beginning. ICE, one of the largest criminal investigative agencies under the federal government, will be responsible for carrying out the president’s deportation policy shift to focus on “felons, not families” while a bitter partisan fight over immigration is set to break out next year.
“It’s probably fair to say that there’s no more difficult job in the administration right now” than ICE director, said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with NPR News. Alden said her biggest task would be bridging the disconnect between Obama’s priorities on deportations and those of ICE agents themselves. “[ICE agents] think they’re being given inconsistent, conflicting, changing instructions from Washington that make it very difficult for them to carry out their jobs on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Mark Fleming, national litigation coordinator at the National Immigrant Justice Center, told International Business Times last month that changing the culture at regional ICE offices would be a major test of effectiveness for the new deportation policy. “The reality is that ICE has established over the last decade a certain culture, which is that removals are the priority and the only priority, period,” he said.