Ex-Virginia attorney general named to US immigration post

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 Monday, Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan announced.

But it's unclear if Trump will nominate Cuccinelli for the permanent position. That would require Senate confirmation, which could be difficult.

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. He has in the past advocated for denying citizenship to the American-born children of parents living in the U.S. illegally.

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.

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."

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. There was debate within the Trump administration over whether that czar's position would be housed within the White House or within Homeland Security, a trickier positioning where the appointment could conflict with top leaders in Senate-confirmed positions.

The action comes as the department is calling on Congress to provide aid for the border crisis and Trump eased off his threat to impose tariffs on Mexico unless it helps stem the number of Central American migrants flowing over the border.

McAleenan has asked Congress for $4.5 billion more in supplemental funding. Mexico agreed to greatly ramp up sending asylum seekers back over the border to wait out their cases and will send National Guard troops to its southern border.

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