Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch on Wednesday avoided a critical question about President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration, by refusing to say whether it was legal for Obama to affirmatively remove the possibility of deportation for millions of illegal immigrants for three years, and allow them to work during that time.
Instead, Lynch said she wasn't familiar with the details of this part of Obama's program, and seemed to surprise Republicans by referring to it broadly as a more drawn-out process of deportation. Republicans have rejected that characterization, and say Democrats appear to be hoping the temporary protections provided by Obama could someday become permanent.
Lynch testified Wednesday at the Senate Judiciary Committee, where several Republicans pressed her on her views of Obama's immigration plan. That plan involves the prioritization of convicted criminals and other dangerous illegal immigrants for deportation, and excusing the lowest-priority illegal immigrants from deportation for three years, and even allowing them to work.
When pressed on this, Lynch repeatedly defended the Justice Department's legal analysis as something that tries to rationalize a way to prioritize deportation actions.
Republicans seemed fine with the idea of setting enforcement priorities, but argued that Obama's move goes much further than that. Obama's decision, they said, doesn't stop at making some people a lower priority for deportation, but actually rewards them with a three-year stay and the ability to work.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) stressed this point in his questions to Lynch. Lee made an analogy to local police, and said it's logical that police would worry more about bank robbers than pickpockets, and would worry more about pickpockets than people who speed.
But at the same time, he said it wouldn't make sense for police to start rewarding speeders just because they are low priorities. "That doesn't mean that it would be OK, that it would be a proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion, to issue permits for people to speed, right?"
Lynch didn't answer that question, but she did admit that law enforcement should always have the option of pursuing actions against lower-level offenders, even if they are on a lower list of priorities.
"You would want to have the ability to still, if you could, take resources and focus on that issue," she said. "It might not be the first priority, but you would want to have the ability to go back and deal with that issue."
Lynch's response could be heard as an agreement that perhaps Obama went too far by rewarding immigration offenders who happen to be on a lower priority list. But when pressed further, Lynch declined to answer more directly, and said she was unaware of exactly how the Department of Homeland Security was handling these lower priority immigrants.
She also indicated that because Obama's deferred action will only last for three years at a time, that could allow law enforcement to take action against these immigrants at a later date. For example, in response to questions from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), Lynch said her impression was that illegal immigrants on eligible for deferred action and work permits will only have that status "for a brief period of time."
Later on in their discussion, Lynch seemed to indicate that she sees the deferred deportation action and work permits as something akin to a slower deportation process. At one point she said DHS is the entity that "manages the removal process for those in the low priority category," and said she was not aware of how that would be implemented.