Two top DHS officials came under intense scrutiny during an oversight hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Leon Rodriguez and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah Saldana were asked tough questions from both Republicans and Democrats on the Committee regarding their handling of state and local jurisdictions that refuse to communicate with ICE or comply with ICE detainers (sanctuary cities) and for the Obama Administration's release of more than 70,000 criminal aliens.
Senators Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) applied the most pressure on Rodriguez and Saldana, but Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (R-Minn.) also forced the pair to answer tough questions as well.
In her opening statement, Sen. Feinstein called for state and local cooperation with federal immigration agents and said the San Francisco Sheriff's Department should have notified ICE when it released Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, the seven-time felon and five-time deported illegal alien charged with shooting Kate Steinle in San Francisco.
"It is clear to me that we have to improve cooperation between federal, state, and local law enforcement," Sen. Feinstein said. "The overriding concern, and a deep belief of mine, is that convicted felons should be removed from our country and not released onto our streets. When immigration authorities ask that a state or local law enforcement agency notify them of an impending release of an alien with a serious felony record, that request should be honored. I strongly believe that local authorities should have notified the immigration authorities in the case of the accused murderer of Kate Steinle. The man who killed Kate is the classic example of multiple felonies and prior deportations."
During her questioning of Directors Rodriguez and Saldana, Sen. Feinstein read through the troubling statistics of the Obama Administration's history of releasing criminal aliens onto the streets.
"ICE released 66,564 criminal aliens back onto the streets of our country in 2013 and 2014, and another 10,246 as of March 2015. This included criminal aliens convicted of violent and serious crimes including homicide, sexual assault, kidnapping, and aggravated assault. And then it goes on to say 123 Americans have been murdered by one of those released criminal aliens."
Sen. Feinstein, who was the mayor of San Francisco for 10 years before being elected to the U.S. Senate, asked Saldana how ICE can prevent the release of dangerous criminal aliens.
"It seems to me that we have one-size-fits-all that you do for the worst felon what you do with someone without that kind of record," Sen. Feinstein said. "Let me ask you what should happen to somebody convicted of seven felonies in this country in a number of different states. And someone who has been deported five times and eventually comes back to commit a heinous crime. How should that be prevented?"
Saldana offered a weak solution that didn't address the release of criminal aliens by ICE or state and local jurisdictions.
"My belief is in developing relationships in communication," Saldana said. "It is a three-way law enforcement communication - the Bureau of Prisons, San Francisco Sheriffs office, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I'm doing everything I can to look into it, and we've directed our senior staff to start opening doors, and there have been some conversations with the Bureau of Prisons which is overseen by my old department - the Department of Justice - to try and talk about, at least between federal agency and federal agency, what we can do better."
Sen. Feinstein then asked how ICE would respond if the San Francisco sheriff's office did notify the feds of Sanchez-Lopez's release date. Saldana didn't say the agency would detain him or pursue deportation, but instead passed the buck onto the Department of Justice.
"Suppose the sheriff did communicate with you," Sen. Feinstein said. "The record is still there -- seven felonies, five deportations, and he came back. And he's tried a number of different states and managed to commit felonies there too. What would happen to him? What would you do with him?"
"Probably someone with that kind of record, we would present him to the U.S. Attorney's office for prosecution," Saldana said.
"For what?" Sen. Feinstein asked.
"Illegal re-entry," Saldana said. "And there are escalating punishments depending on your criminal record. Right now, it's up to 20 years depending on the nature of the person's background."
When Sen. Feinstein asked for specific examples where ICE has turned multiple felons over to DOJ, Saldana had no response and instead called for "comprehensive immigration reform".
Sen. Sessions began his questioning of Rodriguez and Saldana by reading a letter written by San Francisco's sheriff's deputies that said the county's refusal to cooperate or coordinate with federal immigration agencies "recklessly comprises the safety of sworn personnel, citizens and those who merely come to the San Francisco area." He then asked Saldana whether she was pressured to reverse course when in March she said federal law enforcement should compel state officials to comply with federal law and then took back the statement the next day.
"I think that we have a serious problem here and I believe it's directly from the top of this administration," Sen. Sessions stated. "I believe you've been directed to carry out Administration policies. When you were asked about sanctuary city reform, you said, 'Absolutely, Amen!' The next day, did you have a conversation with someone and decide to change your statement?"
"My response was a straight out law enforcement response," Saldana said. "What I did the next day was to clarify. I will not go against all our efforts in establishing and now implementing PEP (Priority Enforcement Program). We want to work with those jurisdictions. That's what I have always done is set up agreements with state and local governments."
Sessions also read a letter from USCIS union president, Ken Palinkas, that said the officers are pressured to rubber-stamp visa applications of illegal aliens to the point where the agency has "turned into an approval machine."
"I've never seen the kind of morale problems I've seen from [this] statement," Sen. Sessions said. "This is not healthy. It's very bad and it's a product of the trends we're seeing of non-enforcement rather than enforcement" of immigration laws.
Sen. Cruz delved deeper into the statistics of the crimes of criminal aliens and asked Saldana to repeat every stat that relates to DHS releasing criminal aliens onto the streets. He raised an issue, however, with one of her responses.
"I want to know that your testimony here, on how many criminals ICE released in 2013, you were off by a factor of three," Cruz said. "You said 30,000. The correct answer is 104,000. There were 68,000 criminal illegal aliens that ICE declined to begin deportation proceedings against. Despite the fact, that as Sen. Sessions observed the federal law that you are holding up there says they 'shall' be deported.
"The Obama Administration refused to deport them. That is 68,000. In addition to that there are 30,000 in deportation proceedings with criminal proceedings that the Obama Administration released. I would note that among those were 193 murderers with homicide convictions. 426 people with sexual assault convictions. 16,000 criminal illegal aliens with drunk driving convictions released by this administration because they refuse to follow the law."
Sen. Cruz then went into lecture mode and told Rodriguez and Saldana to start enforcing the law.
"There are too many politicians in Washington that talk a good game but don't act. If you want to honor Josh [Wilkerson], if you want to honor Kate Steinle, start enforcing the law and stop releasing murderers, and rapists, and drunk drivers...
"I don't want to hear from the Obama Administration they're sorry while they continue to do the exact same thing because what we know -- more people will be murdered, more people will be raped, more people will be killed by drunk drivers because this Administration refuses to enforce the law. That is wrong. No man is above the law, and that includes President Obama...
"It is within your power to follow federal law. And this administration refuses to do so, and that is altogether unacceptable."
During her questioning, Sen. Klobuchar noted the "glaring" problem of sanctuary cities not reporting when they have criminal aliens in custody.
"The most glaring thing is this individual that has been deported several times and has been convicted of lengthy felonies, that there was no notification to try to deport him," Sen. Klobuchar said. "It just seems like in cases like this, it should be mandatory that ICE be notified."
Updated: Wed, Aug 5th 2015 @ 1:00pm EDT