Sen. Cornyn now opposes Texan slated for top immigration post

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, Dec. 2, 2014
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, Dec. 2, 2014 AP

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a strong supporter of Texas U.S. Attorney Sarah Saldana in the past, pulled a political surprise Wednesday by voting against her nomination as director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Cornyn joined all Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, in voting against President Barack Obama’s choice as principal deputy assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security, as the job is formally known.

Saldana’s nomination advanced on a 10-8 party line vote on the judiciary panel, but the outlook for her Senate confirmation is now unclear, with only a few days left in the congressional session.

“I was happy to support Ms. Saldana’s nomination for U.S. attorney, a role in which she has served North Texas well,” Cornyn said in a statement explaining his vote. “By ignoring the rule of law and launching another massive executive power grab on immigration, the president has unfortunately put Ms. Saldana in an extremely difficult position.”

Cornyn, currently the Senate minority whip and on tap to become the majority whip in January, continued, “I am troubled by her recent comments regarding the president’s executive actions, and I cannot support her nomination to be our nation’s chief immigration enforcement officer until she explains her views before a full hearing in the Judiciary Committee.”

Republicans are pushing back against the president’s executive action giving more than 4 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally a reprieve from deportation. Many have pledged to try to undo or somehow thwart his action once their party takes complete control of Congress next month. The tactics have ranged from trying to limit Homeland Security funding to impeachment.

The Judiciary Committee vote follows an earlier vote by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which approved Saldana’s nomination in September after a hearing. Both panels have jurisdiction over the position.

Cornyn introduced her at the earlier – a courtesy for a home state nominee – and praised her effusively: “She is tough, she is smart, and fiercely independent as a prosecutor.”

But he expressed concerns about what was then the anticipated easing of immigration rules that Obama promised he would undertake after the election. At the same time, lawmakers are concerned about border security and that ICE has not had a permanent director for more than a year.

Cornyn had earlier championed Saldana to be U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas against House Democratic opposition and she was approved in 2011.

In written responses to the judiciary panel, Saldana supported the president’s legal basis for deferring deportations. Cruz jumped on the answers late Tuesday and issued a press release announcing his opposition to her.

“Ms. Saldana has made it clear in a written statement that as assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement she would enable President Obama’s unconstitutional amnesty,” he said. “I do not support the president’s unconstitutional amnesty, and therefore, cannot vote for a nominee who will be another rubber stamp for illegal amnesty. I encourage my colleagues, especially those who oppose Obama’s amnesty, to oppose this nomination.”

While critics like Cruz have freely labeled Obama’s move as “amnesty,” a political hot button term employed by opponents, many legal experts have said it is not amnesty, but an example of “prosecutorial discretion,” whereby the president is directing law enforcement authorities to focus their attention on other matters.