President Barack Obama nominated Texas federal prosecutor Sarah Saldaña on Wednesday to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first Latina to run the agency.
Saldaña, the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Texas, became the first Hispanic woman to ever hold the top prosecutor job in state history in 2011. Before that, the 62-year-old was a federal prosecutor in Dallas, where she headed the investigation unit that probed local corruption.
A former private law partner once described Saldaña as "tough as nails" – a characteristic she will need if she heads the agency that finds itself front and center of the nation's heated immigration debate following a surge of more than 62,000 unaccompanied minors, many from Central America, who've illegally crossed the border over the last year.
As the head of ICE, Saldaña would run the principle investigative agency for Homeland Security in charge of arresting, detaining, and deporting immigrants from the U.S. The nomination comes at a time when the president is expected to take executive action adjusting the nation's immigration policy, citing a lack of Congressional action on comprehensive immigration reform, before the midterm elections
Over the last six years, over 2 million people have been deported under President Obama, a record which has Latino and immigration advocates branding him the "deporter-in-chief." This pressure, in part, from those advocates, caused the administration to adjust their deportation policy in 2013 to prioritize the deportation of people with criminal records and prior immigration violations over those with no criminal record and strong family ties in the U.S.
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, a Democrat, was chosen as U.S. attorney by a bipartisan panel. But interestingly, her nomination in 2011 was backed by Republican Sen. John Cornyn and opposed by some Democrats in the Texas congressional delegation. Some, like Democrat Texas Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzalez, have said they believe she was being "blackballed by congressional Democrats" for leading the prosecution against local Dallas Democratic officials like Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2010.
Before serving as the U.S. Attorney in 2011, Saldaña was the Deputy Criminal Chief for the Fraud and Public Corruption and worked as a private attorney for 14 years.
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."
At one point, Saldaña was an eighth grade English teacher in Dallas. She then returned to college and received a law degree from Southern Methodist University in 1984.