America's Voice En Español »
Originally published June 2017, last updated January 3, 2019.
Jeff Sessions, former Senator from Alabama and former U.S. Attorney General under Donald Trump, has long been one of the nation’s loudest anti-immigrant voices. When he was in the Senate, Sessions took every opportunity to denounce immigrants in incendiary terms and oppose immigration reform legislation. He had a record of making remarks against African-Americans that were so racist it cost him a federal judgeship. As Attorney General, Sessions employed his power in unprecedented ways to shift immigration regulations toward his nativist views. Sessions also has a record of ties to anti-immigrant extremism, and relationships with hate groups and white nationalists have been central to his politics for decades.
Though few other White House officials matched Trump’s zeal for attacking immigrants, Sessions was ultimately unable to avoid being the subject of Trump’s ire. After Sessions’ 2017 recusal from the Russia investigation, Trump publicly spoke of replacing him and found his opportunity after the tidal wave of losses Republicans incurred in the 2018 midterms. Though Sessions lasted less than two years as Attorney General, his anti-immigrant efforts will have destructive and long-lasting effects for many immigrants across the country.
As Attorney General, Sessions led the Department of Justice (DOJ), which plays a critical role in the immigration system. Not only did Sessions issue devastating policy changes to the immigration system; he also rolled back important guidelines that insured immigrants were treated fairly in the workplace. Sessions took unprecedented control over the immigration court system, which falls under DOJ jurisdiction. As Attorney General, Sessions:
During Sessions’ nomination to be Attorney General, a 1986 Coretta Scott King letter was read, saying that “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.” [see Sessions’ racist history below]
Professors from 170 law schools in 48 states wrote that “we are convinced that Jeff Sessions will not fairly enforce our nation’s laws and promote justice and equality in the United States. Nothing in Senator Sessions’ public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge.”
Two hundred advocacy groups, including the Leadership Conference on Human Rights, wrote that “Senator Sessions has a 30-year record of racial insensitivity, bias against immigrants, disregard for the rule of law and hostility to the protection of civil rights that makes him unfit to serve as the attorney general of the United States.”
In the Senate, Jeff Sessions opposed every pro-immigrant bill that came his way, including bills that created a path to citizenship for the undocumented, bills that dealt with legal immigration and brought more science/math/tech workers to the US, and two versions of the DREAM Act that would have provided status for young immigrants. In 2007, Sessions did get one immigration bill passed – a piece of legislation which banned for ten years federal contractors who hired undocumented immigrants. Dana Milbank once compared Sessions to George Wallace after Sessions opposed the 2013 Senate immigration reform bill at every turn.
During the 2013 Senate immigration reform bill fight, Sessions:
Sessions as a Senator also said that immigrants who are racially profiled are just “criminals” telling “marvelous stories”, opposed a resolution honoring Cesar Chavez, opposed a version of the Violence Against Women Act, opposed a bipartisan human trafficking bill, mocked those who used food stamps (“why don’t we just pay for your clothes?”), and likened immigrants to terrorists and child molesters.
Sessions has such an ugly racial history that it once cost him a federal judgeship, making him only the second person in 50 years to have his appointment blocked by the Senate. Here are some of the alleged comments that Sessions has been in trouble for:
The New Republic once noted that:
Since his election as a senator, Sessions has not done much to make amends for his past racial insensitivity. His voting record in the Senate has earned him consistent ‘F’s from the NAACP. He supported an ultimately unsuccessful effort to end affirmative action programs in the federal government (a measure so extreme that many conservatives were against it), he opposed hate-crimes laws, and he opposed a motion to investigate the disproportionate number of minorities in juvenile detention centers. Says Hillary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, “[Sessions’s] voting record is disturbing. … He has consistently opposed the bread-and-butter civil rights agenda.”
Sessions’ extremism is underscored by his extensive ties to anti-immigrant extremists and the white nationalist John Tanton network. During his Attorney General confirmation hearings, Sessions refused to denounce these extremist ties.
Sessions has close relations with the three leading anti-immigrant groups: the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), NumbersUSA, and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR.) He often quotes their work and regularly appears at their events. And they return the favor.
In 2008, NumbersUSA awarded Sen. Sessions their Defender of the Rule of Law award for the Senator’s work in obstructing immigration reform. A year earlier, FAIR honored Sessions with their Franklin Society award for his opposition to immigration legislation in 2007. Sessions was also feted at FAIR’s board of advisors meeting and was the keynote speaker at the advisory board’s dinner. Numerous press releases from NumbersUSA and FAIR have been effusive in their praise for Sessions, applauding Sessions’ stand to “protect American workers in the Senate immigration debate” and calling him their “No. 1 champion for American workers” on immigration issues. After the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform bill was defeated in 2007, a FAIR newsletter thanked Sessions for his leadership and wrote that “no one played a more important and more public role” in defeating the bill.
Sessions has been more than happy to return the favor. In May 2012, Sessions took to the Senate floor to enter a statement into the Congressional Record commemorating NumbersUSA’s 15th anniversary. Sessions concluded his remarks by saying, “I congratulate [NumbersUSA] on a successful first fifteen years and wish them even greater success over its next fifteen years.” The floor speech was a public display of affection that mirrored something Rep. Tom Tancredo (an anti-immigrant arch-nativist known for, among other things, arguing that President Obama is a greater threat than Al Qaeda) did five years earlier, when he commemorated NumberUSA’s ten-year anniversary from the House floor.
Sessions has also appeared at numerous anti-immigrant press conferences and panels, including ones featuring the leaders of the Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA.
FAIR and CIS are designated hate groups, and NumbersUSA has a stridently anti-immigrant agenda. They were founded by John Tanton, a known white supremacist who believed in eugenics. These associations might make some officials think twice about developing a relationship with them, but clearly not Jeff Sessions.
The Center for Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA were started with Tanton’s help and he founded FAIR. So Tanton, who has long-standing and well-established ties to white nationalist groups, had a role in the creation of all three groups — and the leaders of all three groups worked for Tanton.
According to a Southern Poverty Law Center report on Tanton and his ties to the anti-immigrant groups:
Three Washington, D.C. organizations most responsible for blocking comprehensive immigration reform in 2007 are part of a network of groups created by a man who has been at the heart of the white nationalist movement for decades, according to a report issued today by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Nativist Lobby: Three Faces of Intolerance [full report here] describes how the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and NumbersUSA were founded and funded by John Tanton, a retired Michigan ophthalmologist who operates a racist publishing company and has written that to maintain American culture, “a European-American majority” is required.
“These groups have infiltrated the mainstream by presenting themselves as legitimate commentators, when, in reality, they were all conceived by a man who is convinced that non-white immigrants threaten America,” said Mark Potok, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “They have never strayed far from their roots.”
The report examines how Tanton, who still sits on FAIR’s board of directors, founded the racist Social Contract Press and has corresponded with Holocaust deniers, white nationalist intellectuals and Klan lawyers for decades. These groups cater to the most extreme elements in the anti-immigration world – and Jeff Sessions has a key role in that world.
It’s disturbing that a former U.S. Attorney General has very close ties to hate groups and white nationalists. It has been even more disturbing that colleagues in his party and in the Trump Administration found nothing wrong with that.