After he graduated from college in the mid-1960s, Lupe Saldana had trouble finding work. He wanted — needed — something to do, and he went to his little sister for some help.
Sarah Saldana was in fourth grade at the time in a district near Corpus Christi, Texas. She had, and would always have, a perfect attendance record in school. She got straight As on her report card, term after term. Lupe saw his sister’s grades and thought he could put them to use for his own employment troubles. He ended up with the easiest encyclopedia-sales job ever — he’d just go door to door and show people his sister’s grades.
“I just said, ‘Well, if you buy these and read them, you’ll make just as good grades as my sister,’” Lupe said. “Business was good.”
Five decades later, Sarah Saldana is helping solve a bigger problem than her brother’s unemployment. Late last year, she was sworn in as the new director of the troubled U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, after a lengthy delay held up the appointment of a new head for the agency for more than a year.
She’s the first Latina woman to lead the agency, which is the second-largest federal law-enforcement agency next to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. She’ll lead a staff of more than 20,000, almost 100 times the size of the field she led at her last job as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas.
And she will be the de-facto enforcer carrying out the new deportation policies put into effect late last year by President Barack Obama, whose plan will help shield more than 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Her job will earn her the ire of both sides of the political coin on any given day, dealing with the concerns of advocates for better detention practices and the fury of a vocal crowd on the right.
There’s almost no one close to her who can understand why she’d want this job. Yet they admit there’s probably no one better suited for it.
“I can’t think of a better person to take on these problems,” said Kurt Schwarz, the president of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, who, like Saldana, clerked for the longtime U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders.
Saldana is walking into a tangled situation. First, there’s her staff — a troubled team dealing with constant change. The Partnership for Public Service ranked ICE tied for last in a 314-agency-long list of the best government agencies to work. A union representing ICE workers last year sued the federal government over Obama’s 2012 executive action, which shielded many young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Then, there’s Congress. Obama’s new executive actions — which place priority on the border and the removal of those deemed threats to “national security and public safety” — are prompting a fierce debate on Capitol Hill. Funding for the Department of Homeland Security remains up in the air past a Feb. 27 deadline.
And then, the advocates. Saldana’s ICE will face heightened scrutiny from immigrants-rights groups, both in how they carry out the new executive actions and in how they improve detention practices.
“The challenge is that you do have a rank and file,” said Marshall Fitz, the vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “Trying to get everyone singing off the same hymnbook is challenging. … We are hopeful she will be able to help continue the cultural shift in DHS.”
Immigrant advocates were less than pleased with John Morton, the former head of ICE who stepped down nearly two years ago. They said he was mostly interested in seeking to appease all sides. He often did so with policies that ended up rarely satisfying anyone. Take the so-called 2011 “Morton memos,” which called for prosecutorial discretion for ICE agents in deciding whom to deport. Conservatives criticized him for opening the door to more discretion, and liberals blasted him for not going even further.
Schwarz, of the Texas ACLU, has seen his organization sue ICE on multiple occasions because of its detention policies and delays in proceedings for undocumented immigrants seeking protection. But he’s hopeful those things will now change.
“Being profiled is something I think Sarah can put a stop to,” Schwarz said. “I intend to hold her to it.”
ICE declined to make Saldana available for an interview.
Why she’s the one
Schwarz and others marvel at Saldana’s rags-to-riches backstory, which they say will be important in her new role. She grew up the youngest in a family with seven children — four boys and three girls. Her sister, Marisela, and her brother, Lupe, described their mother as the core of the family. Their father suffered from alcoholism, his health declining and drawing him away from his family. Marisela said he died in a “tragic work accident” at the age of 56.
They struggled to survive on $13,000 of annual income, and their mother decided to go back to school to get her nursing degree. Marisela remembers doing homework with her mother at the family’s dining-room table.
“She was a genuine heroine to all of us,” Marisela said. “She was the most important thing in our lives. She made it clear that we should dream.”
Marisela said Sarah’s ambitions were clear. Her path toward getting there was less clear. Sarah Saldana graduated summa cum laude from Texas A&M University, but she didn’t make an immediate move to law. She spent time at various federal agencies while teaching eighth-grade language arts in Dallas’ independent school district.
Lupe said he remembers Sarah and Marisela, who was then working for a social-service organization in Corpus Christi, having an intense conversation at one family reunion. They decided they’d both go back to law school.
Sarah graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1984. Almost immediately, she went to clerk for Sanders. As Sanders’ widow, Jan, tells it, clerking for him was not at all ordinary. He often molded his clerks into public servants, giving them as much leeway on cases as he possibly could. He also emphasized staying in touch with the community. Each day at lunch, he and his clerks discussed current events, headlines, local news — anything but the case they were working on.
“He was very expectant,” Jan said of her late husband. “He relied on his clerks. Sarah really looked up to Barefoot, and she ended up following in his footsteps by seeking to become U.S. Attorney.”
Saldana was appointed as the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, a position in which she led the prosecution in the Dallas City Hall public corruption case. Former Dallas Mayor Pro-Tem Don Hill, a former Democratic city council member, was convicted on multiple counts of bribery and extortion and is currently serving an 18-year sentence.
“Sarah was an excellent prosecutor — very well prepared and thorough and did not overreach,” said Judge Barbara Lynn, who sentenced the 13 defendants convicted in that case. “Very mindful of her ethical duties. She was always very willing to take cases that she believed served the system of justice, no matter how complex or controversial.”
“Complex” and “controversial” describe her new job well. For now, all sides are willing to trust her with it — or at least give her the benefit of the doubt. Andy Morriss, now the Anthony G. Buzbee Dean's Endowed Chairholder at the Texas A&M University School of Law, briefly overlapped with Saldana when they clerked for Sanders.
As time has passed, the two have diverged, at least in political leanings. He described himself as “not the biggest fan of the president.” But he remembers how Saldana would plan to spend the day thinking through a problem on a case, only to get hit with something pressing, forcing her to change course. She would handle the transition with ease. And he imagines there will be many more of those situations at ICE.
“I’m not someone who’s thrilled with the president, but this is the best thing he’s done,” Morriss said. “Sarah is, by a mile, the best person to deal with this job.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.