WASHINGTON — An outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration policies has been named acting director of the agency that manages legal immigration, despite deep opposition from key Senate Republicans.
Ken Cuccinelli will oversee U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services starting this week, Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan announced June 10.
But it’s unclear if Trump will nominate Cuccinelli for the permanent position. That would require Senate confirmation, which could be difficult.
Cuccinelli has in the past advocated for denying citizenship to the American-born children of undocumented parents living in the U.S.
Democrats signaled strong opposition.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called Cuccinelli “an anti-immigrant fringe figure that has no business” helming a key component of the nation’s immigration system.
“Besides being a rightwing commentator, Cuccinelli is completely unqualified to the lead USCIS,” he said in a statement. “With both Democrats and Republicans opposing him, there is no reason for President Trump to instill someone who has no chance of Senate confirmation.”
(India-West Staff Reporter adds: The Council for American Islamic Relations released a statement immediately following McAleenan’s announcement, roundly criticizing the appointment. CAIR noted that Cuccinelli had shown his support for Lebanese-born, anti-Islam advocate Brigitte Gabriel who “allegedly has ties to white supremacist, neo-Nazi hate organizations,” according to the organization.
“Once again, we see the link between endorsing hardline, anti-immigrant policies and supporting Islamophobia. It just goes to show that these views are two sides of the same coin of xenophobia,” said CAIR Government Affairs director Robert McCaw. “We condemn Mr. Cuccinelli’s Islamophobic views and urge the Senate to vote against his nomination as USCIS director.”
In a statement announcing his appointment, Cuccinelli said: “USCIS has the extraordinary responsibility to administer and protect the integrity of our nation’s lawful immigration system.”
“Our nation has the most generous legal immigration system in the world and we must zealously safeguard its promise for those who lawfully come here. I look forward to working with the men and women of USCIS to ensure our legal immigration system operates effectively and efficiently while deterring fraud and protecting the American people.”)
Cuccinelli is a former Virginia attorney general who ran for governor of Virginia, but lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in 2013. It’s not just Cuccinelli’s views on immigration that would generate unease among senators. As the former head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, Cuccinelli has been highly critical of Senate GOP leadership, including once advocating for the removal of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his entire leadership team.
The group backed conservative candidates for Senate and primary challengers for incumbent Republicans, putting it at odds with the party’s chosen candidates. His group and others complained McConnell was insufficiently delivering on conservative priorities, including immigration. One Republican familiar with the situation said the White House has been made aware that Cuccinelli would have a difficult time winning confirmation in the Senate, where Republicans have the majority. The person, granted anonymity to discuss private conversations, said confirmation would be a tough lift.
Instead, the administration may simply opt to keep Cuccinelli in the acting position, working around rules governing vacancies.
USCIS is the agency responsible for legal immigration, including benefits and visas. The position opened after Trump forced the resignation of Lee Francis Cissna, who Trump believed wasn’t doing enough. Cissna said he worked “passionately.”
The departure last month came amid a White House-orchestrated shakeup at Homeland Security, including the April resignation of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
There are more than a dozen vacancies of top leadership positions at the sprawling, 240,000-employee department. This comes as the Trump administration is struggling with a migrant surge at the southern border that is straining federal resources.
Some department positions are being temporarily filled, including secretary and inspector general. The position, like others, requires Senate confirmation.
Cuccinelli’s name has been mentioned for months to become part of the Trump administration, including as possible Homeland Security secretary or as an immigration czar.