US Senate confronts Trump cabinet picks with immigration, domestic security in focus

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Immigration and domestic security, key themes in Donald Trump's successful campaign, will likely dominate two U.S. Senate hearings on Tuesday as lawmakers begin several days of questioning the president-elect's Cabinet nominees.

First to appear before lawmakers will be Trump's pick for attorney general, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Sessions, a close ally of Trump, helped shape his pro-enforcement, anti-amnesty policy on illegal immigration.

Next will be John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general tapped to head the Department of Homeland Security. In earlier congressional testimony, Kelly characterized inadequate policing of the U.S.-Mexico border as a national security threat.

RELATED: Trump's official picks for cabinet and administration positions

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Trump's official picks for Cabinet and administration positions

Counselor to the President: Kellyanne Conway

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Veterans Affairs Secretary: David Shulkin

(Photo credit DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Transportation secretary: Elaine Chao

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Energy secretary: Rick Perry

(Photo credit KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson

 REUTERS/Daniel Kramer

Secretary of Defense: Retired Marine General James Mattis

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Chief of staff: Reince Priebus

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Chief strategist: Steve Bannon

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Attorney General: Senator Jeff Sessions

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Director of the CIA: Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Deputy national security adviser: K.T. McFarland

(Photo by Michael Schwartz/Getty Images)

White House counsel: Donald McGahn

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Ambassador to the United Nations: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

(Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Education secretary: Betsy DeVos

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Commerce secretary: Wilbur Ross

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Homeland security secretary: General John Kelly

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Housing and urban development secretary: Ben Carson

(Photo credit NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Health and human services secretary: Tom Price

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Department of Homeland Security: Retired General John Kelly

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Secretary of agriculture: Sonny Perdue

(BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)
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Both men will face questions from Democrats and Republicans seeking specifics on Trump's plans following his Jan. 20 inauguration to crack down on illegal immigration - an issue central to his explosion onto the political scene, but on which he has since wavered in some ways.

On the campaign trail, Trump promised to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, force Mexico to pay for it and deport 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.

But since he was elected president on Nov. 8, the New York businessman has said part of the wall could be a fence, Congress should fund it with the expectation that Mexico will repay U.S. taxpayers, and that he will focus on deporting immigrants with criminal records and later decide what to do with others.

Both Sessions and Kelly will be major players in immigration policy. In addition to counterterrorism, the Homeland Security secretary oversees immigration enforcement and has discretion over which categories of immigrants are arrested and deported.

AMERICA'S TOP PROSECUTOR

The attorney general is the nation's top prosecutor and legal adviser to the president. As head of the Justice Department, the attorney general also oversees the immigration court system that decides whether immigrants are deported or granted asylum or some other kind of protection.

"Sessions was a close adviser to Trump. ... They're going to ask, 'How are you going to use your position to further the president's agenda?'" said Elizabeth Taylor, a former staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee who advised Republicans during Eric Holder's nomination to be Democratic President Barack Obama's first attorney general.

"But," Taylor added, "historically, attorney general nominees are also asked if they're willing to stand up to the president."

In 2015, Republicans held up the nomination of Loretta Lynch, the current attorney general, for 166 days, longer than any nominee in 30 years, over her support for Obama's executive actions on immigration.

Sessions, 70, and Kelly, 66, are widely expected to be confirmed by the Republican-dominated Senate, but their hearings could be contentious.

Sessions, who has represented the deeply conservative Southern state of Alabama for 20 years, has a long, consistent record of opposing legislation that provides a path to citizenship for immigrants. He has also been a close ally of groups seeking to restrict legal immigration by placing limits on visas used by companies to hire foreign workers.

Roy Beck, president and founder of NumbersUSA, which advocates a reduction in illegal and legal immigration, endorsed Sessions in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley.

RELATED: The uncertain future of 2017

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The uncertain future of 2017

RUSSIA'S GROWING INFLUENCE: Russian leader Vladimir Putin looks to position his nation as an alternate ally to countries such as the Philippines and Turkey who have been traditionally allied with the U.S.. Putin's Russia, accused of influencing the U.S. presidential election, could seek to cement their influence by providing support to other populists facing elections this year. REUTERS/Yuri Kochetkov/Pool

Source: Reuters 

SYRIA'S SHAKY PEACE: A truce deal brokered by Russia and Turkey faces challenges as clashes between rebel and government forces continue. A lasting peace deal could prove elusive as the large number of warring factions seek to protect their own interests and territories. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Source: Reuters 

ISIS-INSPIRED ATTACKS CONTINUE: Following the highly orchestrated Islamic State attacks on Paris and Brussels, the world has witnessed a spate of attacks by individuals who appear to be inspired by the militant group, rather than in direct contact with them. 2017 looks set to see a continuation of these types of attacks as the year began with a mass shooting at a Turkish nightclub where the motive still remains unclear. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard 

Source: Reuters 

THE TRUMP BARGAIN: As President Trump takes office, the white working class that propelled him to the White House will be watching closely to see if he can bring back jobs as promised throughout the campaign. It remains to be seen if the divisive politics that characterized the bitter campaign will continue as Trump takes over the helm of a divided nation. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Source: Reuters 

MERKEL'S POLITICAL FUTURE IN JEOPARDY: German Chancellor Angela Merkel's support for accepting refugees risks costing her re-election when Germans go to the polls later in 2017. Following the Berlin Christmas market attack and in the run-up to the election, Merkel will continue to face demands to take a much tougher line on immigration and security. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Source: Reuters 

BREXIT IN REALITY: Britain will have to navigate how and when to trigger article 50 beginning the process to leave the European Union. How the decision affects immigration, trade and British citizens living in the EU member states should become clearer this year. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Source: Reuters 

VENEZUELA CRISIS DEEPENS: The oil-rich but cash-strapped nation faces a dire economic panorama of worsening food and medicine shortages as its socialist system continues to unravel. With few signs of financial relief on the horizon, President Nicolas Maduro faces escalating street protests as patience wears thin even among his supporters. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Source: Reuters 

RACE RELATIONS IN FOCUS: With the retrial of former police officer Michael Slager in the shooting death of Walter Scott slated for March, the Black Lives matter movement and other groups protesting racial injustice will be watching for a verdict. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

Source: Reuters 

MIGRANTS ON THE MEDITERRANEAN: As temperatures rise, the number of migrants making the dangerous crossing to Europe could increase again despite a record number of deaths of those traversing the Mediterranean in 2016. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

Source: Reuters 

PIPELINE DREAMS AND NIGHTMARES: The success of the Standing Rock protesters to halt the Dakota Access pipeline has set a precedent for how environmental groups could disrupt planned pipeline projects. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Source: Reuters 

CLIMATE CHANGE DISCORD: Top scientists say Trump's vow to pull the United States out of the Paris climate-warming accord would make it far harder to develop strategies to lessen the impact of global warming. Though temperatures in 2017 are expected to dip from the record highs of 2016, how the world views climate change and what to do about it will remain a hot topic. REUTERS/Alister Doyle

Source: Reuters 

RIGHT-WING RISING: France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen will likely compete in a presidential run-off election in May that will test whether her brand of populism resonates in a nation that has been hit with attacks on Paris and Nice. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Source: Reuters 

RAQQA OFFENSIVE ESCALATES: An operation by a U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian armed groups' to retake the northern city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State in Syria, looks set to continue in tandem with the offensive on the militant group's Iraq stronghold of Mosul. Trump's campaign promise of a secret plan to fight Islamic State will be forced into the spotlight. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Source: Reuters 

THE DOW'S CLIMB: U.S. stocks saw solid gains in 2016, buoyed by a post-election rally that fueled the Dow Jones Industrial Average to approach 20,000 points but whether the rally will contine in 2017 is up for debate. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Source: Reuters 

A NEW ARMS RACE: With both Putin and Trump planning to modernize their nation's nuclear arsenal, the prospect of a looming arms race is back on the table. When asked to clarify a tweet on nuclear capabilities, Trump said "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all." REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Source: Reuters 

DROUGHT THREATENS FAMINE: Charities have repeatedly warned about the threat of renewed famine as Somalia continues to be plagued by poor rains and conflict, as well as shortages of aid. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Source: Reuters 

TURKEY'S MEDIA CRACKDOWN: Turkey now imprisons more journalists than any other nation following a crackdown in the wake of the nation's coup attempt, according to the CPJ. The extent of the crackdown has worried rights groups and many of Turkey's Western allies, who fear President Erdogan is using the emergency rule to eradicate dissent. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Source: Reuters 

SNAPCHAT DEBUT: Snapchat filed for an initial public offering in 2016 putting the messaging app a step closer to the biggest U.S. stock market debut since 2014. The Venice, California-based company could go public as soon as March and be valued at $20 billion to $25 billion, making it the largest IPO since Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Source: Reuters 

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"Sessions always has made immigration decisions based on protecting the economic interests of hard-working women and men whose incomes and very jobs have been threatened by the desire of various business lobbies to increase the foreign labor competition in their occupations," Beck wrote in a Jan. 3 letter.

Civil liberties groups have raised concerns about Sessions' record on immigration and other positions, including government surveillance, civil rights and marijuana legalization.

He was denied confirmation to a federal judgeship in 1986 after allegations emerged that he made racist remarks, including testimony that he called an African-American prosecutor "boy," an allegation Sessions denied.

The American Civil Liberties Union's legal director will testify at Sessions' confirmation hearing and "raise significant, serious questions about his hostility to civil rights and civil liberties," the organization said in a statement. The group said it is making an exception to its longstanding policy of not interfering with federal nominations in this case.

On Monday, a group of civil liberties and internet freedom groups sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee describing Sessions as a "leading proponent of expanding the government's surveillance authority of ordinary Americans."

Sessions has long condemned marijuana use, which has been legalized for recreational use in eight U.S. states and the District of Columbia but remains banned by federal law. As attorney general, Sessions would have the power to intervene in states that are not in compliance with federal law. He has also opposed attempts to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

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