Challenged by Republicans, Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch on Wednesday defended President Barack Obama's decision to shelter millions of immigrants from deportation though they live in the country illegally. But she said they have no right to citizenship under the law.
She told her Senate confirmation hearing that under the administration's policy, the Department of Homeland Security focuses its efforts on the removal of "the most dangerous of the undocumented immigrants among us." That emphasis, she said, "seems to be a reasonable way to marshal limited resources to deal with the problem" of illegal immigration.
On another controversial topic, Lynch, the top federal prosecutor for parts of New York City and Long Island, said that current National Security Agency intelligence-gathering programs are "constitutional and effective." She said she hopes Congress will renew three expiring provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the FBI to obtain search warrants and communications intercepts in intelligence cases.
Lynch made her remarks at a generally cordial Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, a likely prelude to her swift approval as the nation's first black female attorney general. The event was the first confirmation proceeding for any of President Barack Obama's nominees since Republicans took control of the Senate this month.
Lynch, a daughter of the segregated South, was accompanied at the hearing by about 30 family members and friends. Among them were her father, who is a retired minister, her husband and several members of her college sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, wearing their trademark red.
Settling into the witness chair for what promised to be a long day of questioning, Lynch promised a fresh relationship with law enforcement and Congress.
"I pledge to all of you and to the American people that I will fulfill my responsibilities with integrity and independence," she told a panel led by Republicans who say Attorney General Eric Holder has been too willing to follow President Barack Obama's political agenda.
"You're not Eric Holder, are you?" said Texas Republican John Cornyn, one of the current attorney general's most persistent critics.
"No, I'm not, Sir," she responded with a smile.
Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican and committee chairman, made a similar point in the opening moments of the hearing. He said the department is "deeply politicized. But that's what happens when the attorney general of the United States views himself, in his own words, as the president's 'wingman.'"
Grassley asked first about immigration, and he said the president's actions amounted to rewriting the law rather than enforcing it.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., returned to the subject and asked Lynch if a person who entered the country illegally would have a civil right to citizenship, a claim he said Holder has asserted.
She said that for someone not born in the country, citizenship is a privilege to be earned, and that for immigrants entering the country illegally it is not part of a "panoply of civil rights" guaranteed by the Constitution.
At the same time, when Sessions asked whether individuals in the country legally or those who are here unlawfully have more of a right to a job, she replied that "the right and the obligation to work is one that's shared by everyone in this country regardless of how they came here."
Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, is widely expected to win confirmation easily, if only because Republicans are so eager for Holder's tenure to end. He has been a lightning rod for conservative criticism, clashing with Republicans and becoming the first sitting attorney general held in contempt of Congress.
In testimony delivered before she was questioned, Lynch said that if confirmed she would focus on combatting terrorism and cybercrime and would protect the vulnerable from criminal predators.
And she was at pains to promise what Republican critics demanded in advance.
"I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate and the entire United States Congress, a relationship based on mutual respect and constitutional balance," she said.
Holder also battled the perception from critics that he aligned himself more with protesters of police violence than with members of law enforcement, a charge he and the Justice Department have strongly denied — but one that resonated in the aftermath of high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers.
In her prepared testimony, Lynch promised a fresh start in that relationship, too.
"Few things have pained me more than the recent reports of tension and division between law enforcement and the communities we serve," Lynch said, pledging to "work to strengthen the vital relationships" if confirmed.
Lynch's hearing comes amid a nationwide spotlight on police tactics in the wake of deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers, as well as the slaying last month of two officers in New York City. It's an issue Lynch, 55, is deeply familiar with.
Lynch helped prosecute the New York City police officers who severely beat and sexually assaulted Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997. Her office in New York is currently leading a civil rights investigation into the police chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island last summer.
Lynch has been the top prosecutor since 2010 for a district that includes Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, a role she also held from 1999 to 2001.