WASHINGTON – Former DREAMer and Phoenix resident Oscar Vazquez got his citizenship, served in the Army and is “living the American dream” – a dream he worries could be scuttled for others under a Justice Department led by attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions.
Vazquez was one of 15 witnesses testifying in a divided hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sessions.
Critics claim that the Alabama Republican senator is too conservative and too insensitive to minorities to be the nation’s top law enforcement officer. But supporters hail Sessions’ character and say he will fairly and impartially uphold the nation’s laws.
It was the second day of hearings on Sessions, an early supporter of President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign and one of the first Cabinet nominations made by Trump, who is scheduled to be sworn in Jan. 20.
The president-elect has vowed to overturn the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the executive action by President Barack Obama that deferred deportation for certain immigrants who were brought to this country as children. People like Vazquez, a graduate of Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix who has since earned U.S. citizenship.
While he himself has never benefited from DACA, Vazquez said he is not only worried that other immigrants will lose those deportation protections under a Trump administration, but that they will be too fearful to approach a Sessions-run Justice Department if they are victims of crime.
“When there was a path, there was a way out of the shadows,” Vazquez said of the protection offered under DACA. “We are definitely concerned that the upcoming administration is going to stop DACA and those students will have to go back to the shadows.”
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina and a member of the committee, said he believes there is a way to replace DACA without resorting to worst-case deportation scenarios painted by critics of the incoming administration.
“If I had my way, then we’ll find a way to replace Obama’s executive orders to protect the 800,000 people who have come out of those shadows,” Graham said.
Other witnesses rejected attacks on Sessions, saying minority groups have nothing to fear from the prospect of him as attorney general.
Former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson noted that Sessions, as U.S. attorney in Alabama, successfully prosecuted a Ku Klux Klan leader, and that as senator he fought for years to reduce penalties for crack-cocaine crimes, which wound up putting black defendants behind bars for much longer terms than whites.
“I am confident that, as attorney general, Sen. Sessions will impartially and vigorously enforce our laws,” Thompson said in testimony prepared for the hearing, adding that he believes Sessions will “lead the department with integrity and commitment.”
But other witnesses called Sessions a threat in areas other than immigration, with one American Civil Liberties Union official accusing the senator of “blindness at best and hostility at worst to the interest and the rights that the attorney general of the United States has a responsibility to protect.”
“It’s the pattern of abuse when he exercised prosecutorial power and the pattern while he was senator of not just ideological differences as some have put it,” said David Cole, the legal director of the ACLU.
Vazquez, who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, said that the perception of hostility from Sessions, at a time when immigration policy is “taking a step back,” is one of the concerns he has about the appointment.
“I think the biggest problem is the fear of the people that have to come forward with these issues,” Vazquez said during a break in the four-hour hearing. “In Maricopa County, people would not report the crimes committed against them for fear of deportation.”
If DACA or another pathway to legal citizenship remains, he said, “We will follow.” Given their love for their newfound country, many immigrants would be happy to serve, said Vazquez, citing his own experience volunteering for the Army and being deployed to Afghanistan as a paratrooper.
Despite concerns, however, Vazquez said he remains optimistic about the future for DACA students and other immigrants in the United States, and he encouraged them to remain hopeful.
“For the students that are benefiting from DACA and the students preparing for the future, they need to continue to do so,” he said after his testimony. “Because change will come one day and we need to prepare for when that happens.”