WASHINGTON — Kevin McAleenan, the country’s top border security official, might have been born and raised in Hawaii, but that didn’t give him the full support of his home state senators.

McAleenan was nominated by President Donald Trump to be commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which with nearly 60,000 employees is the largest law enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

On Monday, the Senate voted 77 to 19 to confirm McAleenan to the position, which he had previously held in an acting capacity.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan, left, and Senator Mazie Hirono appear before the Senate Finance Committee in a hearing to consider his nomination to appointment to Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, October 24, 2017. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Glenn Fawcett
Kevin K. McAleenan, left, received support from Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono despite concerns from some of her Democratic colleagues. U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Among those voting against him was Sen. Brian Schatz, who has not been shy about voicing his displeasure with the Trump administration.

Schatz voted alongside some of the Senate’s most high-profile Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein and Kirsten Gillibrand. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, also voted against McAleenan’s confirmation.

“On his watch, Trump’s deportation force has detained a record number of immigrants, tearing apart families and hurting small businesses,” Schatz said in a statement. “That’s why I voted against his confirmation, and will continue to stand up to this administration’s anti-immigrant agenda.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been the focus of intense scrutiny ever since Trump became president. Trump’s proposed travel ban for Muslim-majority countries and his desire to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border thrust McAleenan’s agency into the middle of the political fray.

The president’s decision to revoke Obama-era protections for immigrants who were brought to the country illegally by their parents further complicated the agency’s relationship with the Democratic lawmakers.

It was an exceedingly unpopular decision that continues to deliver public relations blows to the agency, especially as the media picks up on stories of border patrol agents making arrests that break up families.

America’s Voice, an immigration reform group, highlighted two such cases in a press release last week urging senators to vote against McAleenan’s confirmation.

Senator Brian Schatz at Honolulu Civil Beat gesture. 31 may 2017
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz voted against confirming McAleenan. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One case involved the arrest and detention of a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. The other involved a Congolese mother who was separated from her 7-year-old daughter while seeking asylum.

“During his time as Acting Commissioner of CBP, Kevin McAleenan proved that he is another of President Trump’s puppets, who will stop at nothing to harm immigrants,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice.

“Mr. McAleenan has aggressively prosecuted President Trump’s assault on immigrants and asylum-seekers. A vote against McAleenan is a vote in favor of American values and families.”

With such strong opposition to his nomination from the left it might be surprising that Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Japanese immigrant who has been increasingly outspoken about the Trump administration’s views on immigrants, supported of McAleenan.

In fact, she even served as his sponsor during his hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, sitting alongside him during questioning in October.

Hirono told Civil Beat after Monday’s vote that she shares the concerns of immigrants rights activists and her Democratic colleagues, many of whom she thinks would have voted “no” regardless of who Trump tapped for the post.

But she said given her prior working relationship with McAleenan, she wants to give him an opportunity to prove himself in the position.

When he was a boy, McAleenan’s father earned a doctoral degree at the University of Hawaii and worked with at-risk youths at Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School in Honolulu.

Hirono worked with McAleenan to make it easier for travelers from Japan to travel to the islands by setting up a pre-clearance facility in Tokyo.

She also lauded his efforts to open a federal inspection facility at Kona International Airport on the Big Island, which allowed international visitors to fly directly to and from the town.

“I have found him to be very open and he has Hawaii ties, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt,” Hirono said. “He knows that I have been very vocal in criticizing this administration.”

She hopes her relationship with McAleenan will make it more likely he’ll hear her concerns about immigration and enforcement issues.

“I expect that there will be open dialogue and frank dialogue,” Hirono said. “I have no problem criticizing whatever CBP does that I think is unfair and not supportive of the people in our country and the immigrants who happen to come into our country undocumented.

“They need to be treated like human beings.”

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