By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed President Barack Obama's choice for a senior immigration enforcement job, defying Republicans who tried to block the nomination to protest Obama's executive order granting deportation relief to undocumented immigrants.
Sarah Saldana, currently the chief U.S. prosecutor in Dallas, Texas, was confirmed on a 55-39 vote to be director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
She will be the first Latina to run the agency. The position has been vacant for over a year, including a period over the summer when child migrants from Central America surged across the U.S. border with Mexico.
Obama nominated Saldana in August and she initially enjoyed bipartisan support. But leading Republicans decided to oppose her after Obama announced in November he was easing the threat of deportation for some 4.7 million undocumented immigrants.
Republicans accuse Obama of exceeding his authority by acting unilaterally and bypassing Congress with the order, which they say amounts to "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. Once Saldana publicly supported Obama's move, Republicans like Senator John Cornyn, a fellow Texan who had effusively praised her nomination, turned against her.
"I was proud to support her," Cornyn said in the Senate on Tuesday. "Unfortunately the president changed everything ... This is the situation in which the president has put a good and decent person like Sarah Saldana."
Democrats said that if Republicans were angry with Obama they should deal with it by passing legislation reforming immigration laws. The Senate did so in June 2013, but the House of Representatives never took up the bill.
"It appears to me that their (Republican) feelings about this president have reached a point they're not thinking clearly," the Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, said.
"They cannot announce that first we need to make sure we stop the flood of illegal immigrants and then refuse to fill the position responsible for administering that responsibility."
There are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Obama's plan would let some who are parents of U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents temporarily stay in the United States and get work permits.
Saldana's confirmation was part of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's push to get nominations through the Senate before Republicans take power next year. Reid hopes to get about 20 more nominees confirmed this week.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Caren Bohan and Tom Brown)