Texas prosecutor becomes first Latina to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement

A federal prosecutor in Dallas is the new head of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Sarah Saldaña, who is the U.S. attorney in Dallas, was confirmed by the Senate through a 55-39 vote on Tuesday.

She is the first Latina to lead the $6 billion federal agency that enforces federal border control, trade and immigration laws.

President Barack Obama praised her confirmation in a statement released shortly after the Senate vote.

"With her years of experience enforcing the law – most recently as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas – Sarah is the right person to lead the dedicated men and women at ICE in securing our borders, keeping American communities safe, and upholding our values," Obama said. "Since I took office, illegal border crossings are down and removal of dangerous criminals is up.  I’m confident Sarah will help us build on this progress while protecting our country in a smart, effective, and humane way."

Saldaña had claimed strong support among many Republicans when she was nominated earlier this year, but that changed after Obama took executive actions to grant work permits to millions in the U.S. illegally.

Saldaña, 62, backed Obama's move and a number of Republican senators, including senior Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn, said they could no longer support her. Some said their opposition was meant to send a message to Obama that they opposed his executive moves, which her agency would be partly charged with enacting.

One of the lawmakers leading the charge against Obama’s executive action and, by extension, against Saldaña’s confirmation has been U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican.

Saldaña said in written answers to questions by a Senate panel earlier this year that she supported unilateral action by Obama on various aspects of immigration, adding that he had the legal authority to issue executive orders on the matter.

That prompted Cruz, one of the Senate’s most conservative members, to denounce Saldaña as “another rubber stamp for illegal amnesty.”

Cruz has made it something of a personal mission to defeat Obama’s immigration executive action, which could spare some 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation for about three years, as well as allow them to obtain work permits and, in many cases, driver’s licenses.

Over the weekend, Cruz delayed a vote on the $1.1 trillion spending bill by waging a last-minute attempt to force a vote on Obama's executive action on immigration.

While Cruz drew the ire of Republicans, Democrats thanked him for his actions because it gave senators an opportunity to schedule a vote on pending nominations while Democrats are still in control of the chamber.

“I’m no expert in Senate procedure,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday before the vote. “I do understand, based on the news reports that I’ve read, that some of the shenanigans that he carried out on the Senate floor did create an opening and additional time for these highly qualified nominees to be confirmed. And if that’s the case, then it may be an indication that Senator Cruz doesn’t know much more about Senate floor procedure than I do. But we certainly are pleased with the outcome.”

Saldaña has been U.S. Attorney for her district since 2011. In 2011, Hispanic National Bar Association named Saldaña as its Latina Attorney of the Year.

Earlier this year, Cruz was quoted in Politico as saying: “Ms. Saldaña 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.”

“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,” Cruz said. “I encourage my colleagues, especially those who oppose Obama’s amnesty, to oppose this nomination.”

Texas’s other senator, Cornyn, introduced Saldaña at a confirmation hearing in mid-September, praising her qualifications to head ICE. After Obama announced his executive order, Cornyn expressed misgivings about the prosecutor.

The Dallas Morning News scolded the opposition to Saldaña by Cruz and Cornyn, saying in an editorial: “Such antics should be beneath Texas senators. Their beef ought to be with the president, not Saldaña, who carries impeccable credentials. It’s ridiculous to attack Saldaña and stall countless other confirmations simply to flex political muscle toward the president.”

“It would be hard to find a more qualified nominee than Saldaña, who combines border-state savvy with a tough prosecutor’s sensibility,” the newspaper said.

Saldaña graduated Summa Cum Laude from Texas A&M University and earned her law degree from Southern Methodist University.

Before law school, she taught 8th grade.

Her background in public service includes working for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, HUD, and the Department of Labor. She was described as pivotal to the successful prosecution of the Dallas City Hall public corruption case.

The Obama administration has been looking to fill the ICE position for more than a year after John Morton stepped down last summer after four years in office.

Back in 2011, Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson called  Saldaña a "gutsy lady" who is "known for her tenacity, and fairness." As the U.S. Attorney, Saldaña supervised prosecutors in over 100 counties in northern and western Texas from Dallas.

Saldaña was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1951 and grew up as the youngest of seven children. According to a profile in her hometown paper, Saldaña's mother worked nights as a nurse, and her father was an alcoholic who wasn't around much.

"My parents' lives were full of struggles," she said. "But they taught the importance of working hard."

About her role as U.S. Attorney, Saldaña said on a U.S. Dept. of Justice website: “To serve my country in this role is the highest of honors and I am humbled by the confidence placed in me by President Obama and Senators Hutchison and Cornyn. Serving in this role, among the fine men and women of the Department of Justice, is a privilege and the highlight of my career.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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