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Latino groups closely following William Barr's nomination for attorney general

Trump's pick would hold significant sway over voting rights, immigration policy and criminal justice reform.
William Barr testifies at the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination for attorney attorney general on Capitol Hill
William Barr testifies at the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination for attorney attorney general on Capitol Hill on Jan. 15, 2019.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to meet next week to vote on the nomination of William Barr as attorney general, moving him closer to a vote by the full Senate, even as Latino groups express concern over the impact his tenure could have on issues such as voting rights, immigration policy and criminal justice reform.

Barr, 68, who previously served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, was nominated in December following President Donald Trump’s firing of Jeff Sessions a month earlier.

Jennifer Salinas, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association, told NBC News on Jan. 23 that her group remains concerned about how Barr’s legal and policy positions would guide the Department of Justice under his leadership.

“Mr. Barr claimed the legality of Trump’s first travel ban of seven predominantly Muslim countries was not ‘debatable,‘ even though several federal courts ended up blocking it, and the administration replaced it with a more narrow executive order,” Salinas said in a statement. “Just a couple of months ago, Mr. Barr co-authored an op-ed lauding Sessions' aggressive immigration enforcement policies, which included the forced separation and deportation of Central American families seeking asylum in the [United States].”

Barr’s answers during his Senate Judiciary hearing to questions about racial bias in the criminal justice system displayed a lack of understanding critical to enforcing the laws in an equal, impartial manner, she added.

His past criticism of asylum laws has also sparked wariness among immigrant rights groups.

UnidosUS said the Latino advocacy group is focused on three areas with regard to Barr: immigration policy, voting rights, and a possible citizenship question on the Census.

While UnidosUS has not yet taken an official position on his nomination, it is monitoring it closely, according to Senior Policy Analyst Stephanie Román.

“Communities of color have experienced fear and pain that comes with an attorney general who turns his back on protecting our civil rights; the Latino community has experienced the harm of voter suppression, as well as quite devastating anti-immigrant policies,” she said in an interview Jan. 24.

As attorney general, Barr would hold significant sway over the immigration court system, which falls under the purview of the Justice Department. The attorney general can also decide which laws his department is going to challenge or support; Sessions sided with Texas on a Voter ID law that was alleged to discriminate against minority voters.

UnidosUS is concerned about Barr’s support for Sessions’ immigration policies, which Román explained harms not only those in the country without authorization but also their U.S.-born children.

Likewise, under Sessions, the Justice Department failed to bring any cases enforcing key sections of the Voting Rights Act. It also proposed adding the citizenship question to the Census — a move that would likely depress Latino responses — on the grounds that it supports the Voting Rights Act. Román called this rationale a “pretext” for voter suppression.

Barr’s inability to answer a question at his Senate Judiciary hearing about birthright citizenship — the principle by which all those born on U.S. soil are American citizens — is a “huge problem” as well, Román said.

Other Latino groups view Barr’s nomination as potentially problematic based on his prior actions and comments. In 1992, for example, Barr linked the Los Angeles riots to a lack of immigration enforcement, and signed off on a Justice Department memo entitled “The Case for More Incarceration.” Asked about disparities in the treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system, he stated in a 1992 Los Angeles Times interview that “our system is fair and does not treat people differently.”

But Barr’s supporters point to his past work under Bush as evidence that he is qualified for the job — overseeing investigations into the savings and loan scandal, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, and the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

“Certainly, his qualifications, education and experience speak for themselves, and he has a very strong record in public service,” former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told NBC News. “His challenge is that he’ll have to deal with a very different kind of president than George H.W. Bush, but I have confidence in his ability to get the job done.”

Gonzales, along with a group of more than 120 former Justice Department officials, signed a letter Jan. 15 in support of Barr’s nomination.

“Barr will be going into a Department of Justice that some say is under siege,” Gonzales said. “He is the kind of no-nonsense person the department presently needs.”

Some detractors also worry about Barr’s past criticism of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

However, Mario H. Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, considered the nominee’s Senate testimony heartening.

“It was encouraging that he seemed to want to respect the independence of Mueller, which is important for the rule of law,” Lopez said in an interview Jan. 18.

In Lopez’ view, opposition to Barr is driven more by “political grandstanding” than by substantive policy issues. Although Barr defended the idea of a border wall, any attorney general nominated by Trump would have done so, according to Lopez, who does not see Barr in the same light as Sessions.

“To their credit, the White House put forth someone who they knew could survive a confirmation,” Lopez said. “The context has evolved a lot since Session’s hearings. I think the administration figured out that a Sessions clone was not going to work.”

But Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, is not optimistic about Barr’s nomination, which is expected to be successful because of the Republican majority in the Senate.

“The Cabinet includes some of the most completely unqualified, in some cases disturbing, individuals who have ever served in a Cabinet, so why would we now expect that Trump has found someone who is well-qualified, incisive, and prepared to move the department in the right direction?” said Saenz, who termed Trump’s Cabinet “a clown car from day one.”

The fact that Barr is a known critic of the Mueller investigation was probably a plus in Trump’s mind, Saenz noted Jan. 23. He pointed out that Trump has a history of turning on his own advisers, which has made it difficult for the president to find people who want to work in his administration.

However, Saenz expects Barr to do a better job than Sessions, whom he termed “unquestionably the worst attorney general in memory.”