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Sen. Jeff Sessions defends his civil rights record, promises to prioritize law over his personal views

Del Quentin Wilber, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

Sessions is again being assailed by civil rights groups, who point to his Senate record of voting against hate-crime legislation, immigration reform and efforts to ban torture as evidence that he would not fairly enforce the laws protecting minorities.

Sessions testified he hoped to work closely with local police and would aggressively combat gun violence, gang crimes and drug trafficking. He said he felt criticism of police misconduct should be "narrowly focused on the right basis" because too often mistakes are used to "to smear whole departments" and that "places those officers at greater risk."

The senator did not stray from his previous long-held hard-line views on immigration enforcement, testifying he would aggressively "prosecute those who repeatedly violate our borders" and support rescinding an Obama administration program that deferred deportation of hundreds of thousands of so-called Dreamers, those brought to the country illegally as children.

"It is very questionable constitutionally," Sessions said of Obama's 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. He did not say whether he believed the 742,000 immigrants protected under the program should be deported.

An unabashed opponent of marijuana use, Sessions was non-committal about whether he might use his authority to resume raids of marijuana-growing operations and dispensaries. Such law enforcement actions, deeply unpopular in states like California and Colorado, were effectively halted in recent years.

On counter-terrorism, Sessions said he would fight the "scourge of radical Islam" and believed that the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should continue to house terror suspects. President Barack Obama was unable to fulfill his pledge to close the detention facility, which still holds 55 detainees, 19 of whom have been cleared for release.

Sessions added that he not support "the idea that Muslims as a religious group should be denied admissions to the United States," a position Trump once backed.

The hearing is scheduled to continue Wednesday with a long list of witnesses, including Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, who said he will take the unprecedented step of opposing a fellow senator's candidacy for a Cabinet job.

Sessions was the first of Trump's Cabinet contenders to begin what is expected to be a combative confirmation process over the next few weeks.

Sessions, one of the most conservative members of Congress, is widely expected to win confirmation from his colleagues in the Republican-controlled Senate. No sitting U.S. senator has ever been rejected for a Cabinet position, and GOP senators on the committee offered nothing but unstinting support on Tuesday.

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