Ken Cuccinelli, 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. Ex-Virginia attorney general Cuccinelli will oversee U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services starting Monday, Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan announced.
Cucinelli sent an email to staff at USCIS on Monday, “We must work hand in hand with our colleagues within DHS, along with our other federal partners, to address challenges to our legal immigration system and enforce existing immigration law,” Cuccinelli wrote in an email to his new colleagues. “Together we will continue to work to stem the crisis at our southwest border.”
Although Cuccinelli has been named acting director, it is unclear if Trump will nominate Cuccinelli for the permanent position. To do so, Trump would require confirmation from the Senate, which could be difficult.
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 Senate Conservatives Fund 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. 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 lead the 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.”
As Virginia’s top law enforcement official in his years serving in the Virginia state senate, Cuccinelli laid a long track of aggressive anti-immigrant policies intended to restrict access to public services, employment, and even citizenship from migrants and their families.
If his record on immigration issues is any indication, Cuccinelli will embrace that role with relish. While his support for President Donald Trump may be relatively newfound, his championing of hardline Trump-style immigration policies is more than a decade in the making.
Cuccinelli first drew national attention during his time as Virginia’s attorney general for his attempts to keep laws against oral sex on the books, he also became a staunch advocate on behalf of aggressive immigration policies in other states.
In 2010, Cuccinelli filed an amicus brief in support of S.B. 1070, an Arizona law that allowed police officers to investigate the immigration status of any person arrested or detained by law enforcement based on a “reasonable suspicion” that they were in the country illegally. That same year, he released a legal opinion expanding a similar policy to include any suspected undocumented immigrant stopped by law enforcement for any reason.