Lynch Defends Obama Immigration Policy at Intense Hearing

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Attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch defended the Obama’s administration’s immigration policies, aligning herself with the White House on a controversial issue even as she sought to establish her independence.

Under intense but polite questioning from Republican senators on the first day of her confirmation hearing, Lynch pledged to be an independent prosecutor and sought to mend relations with a Republican-controlled Congress by promising to work closely with lawmakers on topics from cybercrime to terrorism.

On the most contentious issue brought up at Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee session, Lynch stood firmly behind President Barack Obama’s decision to allow as many as 5 million people who had entered the country illegally to stay temporarily.

Lynch said the the legal underpinnings of the policy, as laid out in a Justice Department memo, were sound. She said that focusing immigration enforcement and deportation dangerous and violent criminals was “a reasonable way to marshal limited resources to deal with the problem.”

Obama nominated Lynch to replace Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been in Obama’s cabinet since the president first took office and announced last September he would leave office. As Obama’s point person on issues such as immigration, civil rights, drug enforcement and anti-terrorism tactics, Holder had become a focal point of Republican criticism of administration policy.

Seeking Differences

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary committee, and other Republican lawmakers pressed Lynch to explain whether she would be independent of the White House and how she would be different from Holder.

“Every lawyer has to be independent, the attorney general even more so,” she said. “I pledge to you that I take that independence very seriously.”

Lynch, a 55-year-old serving her second stint as U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, has drawn strong support from Democrats, who have hailed her as a by-the-books prosecutor and urged quick confirmation. The Judiciary Committee could vote on the nomination in as little as two weeks.

“She’s smart, she’s tough, she’s hard-working, independent. She’s a prosecutor’s prosecutor,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the panel.

Not Holder

The constant questions about Holder’s tenure and efforts by Democrats to highlight Lynch’s autonomy, led Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, to quip, “Let me just stipulate, you’re not Eric Holder, are you?”

“No, I’m not, sir,” Lynch said, drawing laughs.

Although she offered few opinions or details on how she would run the Justice Department, Lynch provided hints about her views.

In response to questions by Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, she said she thought the death penalty was “an effective” punishment and that the National Security Agency’s mass data-collection effort was “constitutional and effective.”

She said she did not support the legalization of marijuana, an issue she will confront as more states consider loosening restrictions on the drug’s recreational and medicinal use.

And although she does not believe undocumented immigrants have a right to citizenship, Lynch said they should be permitted to hold a job.

Right to Work

“The right and the obligation to work is one that’s shared by everyone in this country regardless of how they came here,” she said. “And certainly, if someone here, regardless of status, I would prefer that they be participating in the workplace than not participating in the workplace.”

Among her top initiatives as attorney general, she said, would be battling cybercrime, which is already a top priority of federal law enforcement. Holder and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey have spoken at length about the threats facing U.S. businesses and consumers from savvy online thieves and even spies.

Lynch, who would be the first black woman to serve as attorney general, said she would also like to reduce tensions between police and citizens after unrest sparked by the deaths of two black men last year at the hands of white police officers. The incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City exposed rifts between minority communities and police.

Beyond pledging a “fair and thorough” investigation into the death of Eric Garner in New York that her Brooklyn-based office is leading, Lynch had not addressed the protests that followed a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer involved or the underlying issues that sparked the outcry.

Police Tensions

During her testimony, Lynch emphasized her support for police officers, hailing their courage and sacrifice. She also acknowledged that community anger runs deep and will not heal without work.

“What I have found most effective is getting people together and simply listening to their concerns,” she said.

The daughter of a Baptist preacher and librarian, Lynch was a federal prosecutor for nine years before being tapped to be U.S. attorney in 1999. She left the office in 2001 to enter private practice and returned as the top prosecutor in 2010. Her office serves an area of New York that includes Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens and the rest of Long Island.