Republican Ted Cruz’s sharp questioning of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Sarah Saldaña at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday drew an exasperated rebuke from Democrat Al Franken.
The Minnesota senator accused Cruz of putting on “a display” after the GOP presidential candidate repeatedly asked Saldaña if she had apologized to the family of Kathryn Steinle, a San Francisco woman killed July 1 by an illegal immigrant.
Cruz, R-Texas, and other critics of the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement policies contend ICE and other federal agencies and officials could have done more to prevent the shooting of Steinle. Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a Mexican immigrant who illegally crossed the border into the U.S. several times despite repeated deportations, is jailed and awaiting trial in the case. The Steinle family has filed a lawsuit against ICE and San Francisco, a “sanctuary city” that has a policy of not cooperating with federal efforts to deport undocumented immigrants.
“We just had a 13-minute question and answer that I think in some ways was a kind of, a little bit of a display,” Franken said Wednesday after Cruz wrapped up his remarks. Franken, who has clashed with Cruz before, called the Texas senator’s questioning of Saldaña “unfair” and his comments about the Steinle case “out of context.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., like Cruz one of Congress’ most vocal critics of the administration’s immigration policies, defended the aggressive questioning of Saldaña, a former federal prosecutor from Dallas named to the ICE post by the president in 2014.
“I thought it was a very, very effective elucidation of facts, and if the witness had just answered, it wouldn’t have gone on so long,” the Alabama Republican told Franken.
Saldaña, called before the bipartisan Senate panel to defend the dramatic drop in the number of deportations of illegal immigrants during the Obama administration, faced tough questioning from members of both parties.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., grilled the ICE chief about another case in which an illegal immigrant is accused of murder, the slaying of Casey Chadwick, a Norwich, Conn., woman, in June.
As Saldaña tried to explain that some countries, in this case Haiti, make it difficult or impossible for the United States to deport criminals back to their homeland, the Connecticut Democrat interrupted.
“I have been totally dissatisfied with the briefings we have received. I accept your statement that some efforts were made, but they were abysmally and abhorrently inadequate. And much more could have been done in my view,” he said.
Blumenthal has asked for an inspector general’s investigation into ICE’s handling of the case after Jean Jacques, a Haitian felon, was released from a Connecticut prison in January to the custody of ICE but was never deported. He is now charged with the June 15 stabbing death of the 25-year-old Chadwick.
Saldaña defended ICE and the Obama immigration policy, which was refocused a year ago after the president announced a suite of executive actions to target what the administration calls serious criminals, gang members and security threats for deportation.
“Neither I nor the women and men who work for ICE would let go of a criminal alien if they had a basis for it a final order of removal and the ability to remove them,” she said Wednesday.
The president’s changes in the prioritization of deportations have had a big impact on ICE over the last year. According to Sessions, ICE will deport 63,000 illegal immigrants this year, a drop from 86,000 the previous year and down from 110,000 in 2013.
Saldaña countered that while the agency is kicking fewer illegals out of the country, a much higher percentage of those deported now — 59 percent, she said — are dangerous criminals.