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A Session In Hate

Sessions in hate on immigration.

Last updated: July 19, 2018 by Zachary Mueller

Former Senator and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has long been one of the loudest voices against immigrants and immigration reform. 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 has deliberately positioned his Department of Justice to focus more on prosecuting immigrants than ever. Sessions’ positions aren’t surprising. Sessions has long been allied with an anti-immigrant movement that includes hate groups and white nationalists.

Sessions as Attorney General

Attorney General Sessions has already had an outsized impact on the Trump Administration, making his mark attacking and demonizing immigrants and creating dramatic policy changes that have negatively affected countless numbers of immigrants. Sessions has:

  • Separated families at the border. Sessions announced a “zero tolerance policy” in April, which sought to criminally prosecute all immigrants who cross the border without documentation, regardless of circumstance. The courts struck down the policy, but not before over 2,700 kids were separated from their families. As of this writing, thousands of children remain separated from their families, due to the Administration’s staggering incompetence at keeping records and tracking families. And unfortunately, many of the families have only been reunited in indefinite family detention.  
  • Unilaterally changed the rules to prevent people fleeing gang or domestic violence from obtaining asylum. This targets many of the migrants fleeing central America, even though seeking asylum is an international right. Read more here about the harrowing stories of women fleeing violence that Sessions might prevent from accessing asylum.  
  • Bared asylum claims from anyone who comes to the US outside a port of entry, a reversal of decades-long precedent that will make it harder for many migrants to claim asylum.
  • Moved in unprecedented ways to exert control over immigration courts, rewriting cases to change precedent that could affect hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Sessions has used this power three times already in 2018, which previous Attorney Generals have rarely done: he reopened the door to potentially deporting 350,000 immigrants whose cases had been close,; removed a requirement that judges grant asylum seekers a full immigration hearing, and prevented immigrants from presenting their full case before the court — a ruling that could affect half of all immigration cases. Sessions plans to further expand this power, allowing himself to overrule immigration judges on specific cases.
  • Dramatically increased the number of cases immigration judges will be expected to rule on in a year in order to receive a “satisfactory” performance rating. The judge’s union called the increase “unprecedented” and said it risks undermining judicial independence. Sessions’ approach toward judges quickly led to a dramatic drop in the number of judges finding that asylum applicants demonstrated ‘credible fear’.
  • Attempted to remove a program that provided legal support workshops to immigrants in detention centers. The program sought to explain the process of court hearings and what options immigrants may have to avoid deportation. This was a much-needed service because cases in immigration court do not have the right to a lawyer. After mounting pressure, Sessions reversed his position on this efficient and cost-effective program.  
  • Removed Department of Justice guidelines that prevented discrimination and allowed refugees and asylum seekers a right to legally work.
  • Maneuvered his Department of Justice to have more influence on immigration, and directed prosecutors to target more immigrants.
  • Repeatedly tried to defund so-called “sanctuary cities”, also called “safe cities”. Last April, Sessions sent a letter to nine jurisdictions threatening to cut off federal funds. All nine jurisdictions, however – like just about every city, county, and state in America – were already in compliance with the immigration provision he wanted them to be in accordance with. Sessions for months wouldn’t say how the government defined safe cities, leaving officials very confused about whether or not they were in compliance. His efforts to defund safe cities were, fortunately, blocked by multiple courts.
  • After Trump’s executive order against safe cities was blocked by the courts, Sessions appeared to capitulate. However, in 2017 it was revealed that Trump’s budget proposal wants to change a currently-benign provision in immigration law so that it mandates compliance with ICE detainers. Sessions then supoenaed 23 cities in another attack on “safe city” policies across the country.
  • Sued California over state laws seeking to protect immigrants who haven’t done anything wrong from ICE.
  • Attacked local and state governments for policies that he believes are too friendly to immigrants, even though the policies that Sessions prefers have repeatedly been deemed unconstitutional.
  • Expressed support for ending DACA for Dreamers from the start of his appointment as Attorney General. He then announced the end of DACA in September 2017, only to be blocked by the courts.
  • Helped lay the foundation for an anti-immigrant political strategy in the 2018 midterms in speeches across the country since at least April 2018.
  • Helped bring other anti-immigrant extremists, like Steven Miller, to the White House.
  • Supported all the versions of Trump’s Muslim Ban and cheered the Supreme Court decision upholding it.

Sessions as a Senator

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 10 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:

  • Repeatedly denounced the Gang of 8 bill as being the tool of “special interests” (even though Sessions himself is a favorite tool of anti-immigrant special interests
  • Complained that the 10-year CBO score for the bill wasn’t an accurate predictor of its total costs (leading the CBO to re-score the bill for 20 years, which found additional economic benefits to passing the bill and immigration reform)
  • Repeatedly complained that the Senate was moving too fast on the bill; Sessions tried to slow it down with every step
  • Sessions offered almost 50 poison-pill-type amendments to the bill and sent daily, sometimes hourly, alerts highlighting perceived flaws in the legislation.
  • Said that the bill was “gobbledygook” and too long to read even as he claimed that the legislation was unworkable and harmful
  • Expressed unhappiness that immigration reform might allow immigrants to someday improve their quality of life. Sessions said immigrants would “be able to immediately apply for much better jobs than they currently have…Maybe they were working at a restaurant part time. Now they’re going to be truck drivers, heavy-equipment operators competing at the factories and plants and we’ve got an unemployment rate that’s very high.”

Sessions has 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’ ugly racial history

Sessions, of course, 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:

  • He once “joked” about how he used to think the KKK were ok until he found out some of them were “pot smokers”
  • Called the 1965 Voting Rights Act a “piece of intrusive legislation”
  • Called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American”
  • Suggested a civil rights attorney was a race traitor for taking on a voting rights case
  • Called a black official in his office “boy” and instructed him to be careful what he said to white people
  • Referred to a black local government official as “the n*****”

During Sessions’ nomination to be Attorney General, a 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.”

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.”

The New Republic 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’ courtship of anti-immigrant extremism

Sessions’ extremism is underscored by his extensive ties to anti-immigrant extremists and the white nationalist John Tanton network. During his 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 15 years and wish them even greater success over its next 15 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.

Why Sessions’ relationship with CIS, NumbersUSA, and FAIR matters

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 members of Congress 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 all three groups — and all of three groups’ leaders 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 the current Attorney General has very close ties to hate groups and white nationalists. More disturbing is that colleagues in his party and in the Trump Administration find nothing wrong with that.

More on Jeff Sessions