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.
Sessions as Attorney General
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:
- 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 thousands of children were separated from their families. As of this writing, many children remain separated from their families, due to the Administration’s staggering incompetence at keeping records and tracking parents, and also due to new family separations. 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, even though seeking asylum is an international right. In December 2018, a federal judge struck this move down and ordered the Administration to present new guidelines. Read more here about the harrowing stories of women fleeing violence that Sessions might prevent from accessing asylum.
- Tried to bar asylum claims from anyone who comes to the US outside a port of entry, a reversal of decades-long precedent that would have made it harder for many migrants to claim asylum. A federal judge struck down this effort as well.
- Moved in unprecedented ways to exert control over immigration courts, rewriting cases to change precedent that could affect hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Sessions used this power numerous times, which previous Attorney Generals have rarely done: he reopened the door to potentially deporting 350,000 immigrants whose cases had been closed, 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.
- Independently ruled on two immigration cases, one in which he signaled an intent to increase detention for asylum seekers and another where he sought to facilitate more deportations.
- 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.’
- Directly intervened in an immigration case, removing one judge and replacing him with another to ensure a removal ruling.
- Issued an ominous warning to 44 new immigration judges saying “conduct designated proceedings ‘subject to such supervision and shall perform such duties as the Attorney General shall prescribe.’”
- Attempted to remove a program that provides 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 those facing immigration court do not have the right to a lawyer. After mounting pressure, however, Sessions reversed his position on this efficient and cost-effective program.
- Removed Department of Justice guidelines that prevented discrimination and gave refugees and asylum seekers the right to 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”. In April 2017, 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 complied. His efforts to defund safe cities were, fortunately, blocked by multiple courts.
- After the courts blocked Trump’s executive order against safe cities, Sessions appeared to capitulate. However, in 2017 it was revealed that Trump’s budget proposal included a provision to change a benign provision in immigration law so that it mandates compliance with ICE detainers. Sessions then subpoenaed 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 preferred had 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 mostly blocked by the courts. Sessions’ efforts around DACA lead to speculation that he colluded with Texas AG Ken Paxton in the attempt to bring down the program.
- Helped lay the foundation for an anti-immigrant political strategy in the 2018 midterms.
- 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.
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.”
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 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:
- 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 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’ ugly racial history
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:
- 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 white 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*****”
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’ 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 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.
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 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.
More on Jeff Sessions
- Sessions Again Limits Independence of Immigration Judges and Signals His Intent to Increase Detention of Asylum Seekers
- Sessions’ Assault on the Rule of Law in Immigration Court
- How the Trump Administration is Changing Immigration Courts
- HuffPost: “Donald Trump And Jeff Sessions Are Hijacking The Judicial System To Attack Dreamers”
- Is Attorney General Sessions Turning What Should Be Impartial and Independent Immigration Judges into His Personal Deportation Force?
- The Jeff Sessions Campaign Tour: How the AG is Traveling Around the Country Demonizing Immigrants — And Candidates Are Echoing Him
- Attorney General Sessions and DHS Secretary Nielsen Join Force Again, This Time to Close the Door on Asylum
- By Decree, Jeff Sessions and Kirstjen Nielsen Unilaterally Gut Asylum in America
- Dara Lind of Vox on the Trump Administration’s Plan to Gut Asylum
- Frank Sharry: “We Once Called Our Nation a ‘Shining City on the Hill.’ No Longer”