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DACA, immigrant questions ducked by attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions at confirmation hearing

Naomi Nix | January 10, 2017

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Sen. Jeff Sessions is sworn in Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sen. Jeff Sessions is sworn in Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing. (Photo: Getty Images)

Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions maintained his opposition Tuesday to a federal program that grants temporary legal status to undocumented youth, but he repeatedly dodged questions about what to do with the hundreds of thousands of young people already enrolled in the program.

Responding a question from Sen. Lindsey Graham during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions said he believes that as president, Donald Trump would have the authority to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

“It’s an executive order, really, a memorandum of the Department of Homeland Security. It would certainly be constitutional, I believe, to end that order,” said Sessions, currently a Republican senator from Alabama.

President Barack Obama created DACA by executive order in 2012, giving legal status to so-called DREAMers — youth who arrived in the United States before age 16, attend school or have graduated from high school, and have no criminal convictions. The program also provides work permits and relief from deportation.

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During the presidential campaign, Trump vowed to end the program and ramp up deportation of undocumented immigrants, prompting concerns from some activist groups and lawmakers that the DACA list, which is maintained by Homeland Security, could be used to provide names for expulsions.

In an interview with 60 Minutes after the election, Trump appeared to soften his approach, saying his administration would focus on undocumented immigrants with criminal records and make a determination about others later.

As attorney general, Sessions would be instrumental in any administration decisions about DACA’s future.

Sessions sidestepped a follow-up question from Graham about what he would do with DREAMers who already have temporary legal status. Lawmakers, he responded, need to fix the country’s immigration system.

Perhaps the most heated exchange was with Sen. Richard Durbin, who accused Sessions of offering no evidence that he would handle the issue of immigration fairly and humanely. “Tell me I’m wrong,” Durbin said.

“You are wrong, Senator Durbin. I’m going to follow the laws passed by Congress,” Sessions said. “I do believe, if you continually go through a cycle of amnesty, that you undermine the respect for the law.”

Asked again later what would happen to youth already in the program, Sessions said, “we are not able financially or any other way to seek out and remove everybody that’s in the country illegally. President Trump has indicated that criminal aliens—like President Obama has indicated—certainly are the top group of people.”

Sessions added: “Let’s fix this system. Then we can work together after this lawfulness has been ended. Then we can ask the American people and enter into a dialogue about how to compassionately treat people who have been here a long time.”

“That does not answer the question about 800,000 who would be left in the lurch, whose lives would be ruined,” Durbin responded.

As a senator, Sessions has led the charge in Congress to resist efforts to reform the nation’s immigration system. In 2013, he was one of the most vocal opponents of a comprehensive immigration bill from a bipartisan group of senators including Republican Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Six years earlier, he had spearheaded Senate opposition to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act proposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and supported by then-President George W. Bush. Lawmakers decided not to vote on the bill.  

Since Trump announced his decision to tap Sessions to be attorney general, civil rights groups, pundits, and liberal organizations have urged Congress to reject his nomination, in part because of his record on immigration.

“During his time in public service, Sen. Sessions has been unwilling to protect the laws that serve to safeguard and enhance the well-being of vulnerable communities, and his confirmation as attorney general would be detrimental to the advancement of our nation,” Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, said Tuesday. “Sessions was unfit to serve as a federal judge in 1986 and is unfit to serve as attorney general today.”

This article was published in partnership with The 74

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