How Jeff Sessions Became a Leader in the Immigration Fight

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 08: U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) speaks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee January 8, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held the confirmation hearing for five judiciary nominees today.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
See more stories about...
Michael Catalini
Aug. 6, 2014, 1:41 a.m.

In re­cent months, Sen. Jeff Ses­sions has of­ten been the loudest voice in Wash­ing­ton op­pos­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s im­mig­ra­tion policies.

In the Sen­ate on Tues­day, his was the only Re­pub­lic­an voice. Lit­er­ally.

Five days after his col­leagues scampered home for Au­gust re­cess, be­fore a cham­ber that was empty ex­cept for presid­ing of­ficer Sen. Carl Lev­in, Ses­sions de­livered a half-hour speech call­ing on Demo­crats to pass the House’s nearly $700 mil­lion bor­der se­cur­ity sup­ple­ment­al as well as a bill aimed at curb­ing the pres­id­ent’s power to de­fer de­port­a­tions.

There’s little chance of Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id ac­cept­ing Ses­sions’ in­vit­a­tion.

But Ses­sions’ speech had as much to do with bol­ster­ing con­ser­vat­ives on im­mig­ra­tion as it did with lock­ing down a vote. In­deed, Ses­sions has emerged as a lead­er of the party’s pro­ponents of tight­en­ing the na­tion’s im­mig­ra­tion laws, rein­ing in Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders and, above, all stak­ing out op­pos­i­tion to what many on the right call am­nesty.

Just last week, Ses­sions — the top Re­pub­lic­an on the Budget Com­mit­tee — fired the pro­ced­ur­al bul­let that brought down Sen­ate Demo­crats’ $2.7 bil­lion sup­ple­ment­al fund­ing bill for the bor­der se­cur­ity crisis. It was his budget point of or­der that Demo­crats failed to over­come in a 50-44 vote, 10 votes short.

He also ap­pears to be serving as a an in­tel­lec­tu­al hub for con­ser­vat­ives, with some House GOP aides and law­makers cit­ing his in­flu­ence last week in halt­ing the ini­tial bills pro­posed by that cham­ber’s Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship.

“Clearly Ses­sions was in­stru­ment­al,” said Mark Krikori­an, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for Im­mig­ra­tion Stud­ies. “He has really stiffened back­bones.”

Ses­sions him­self denies that he lob­bied mem­bers, but did not rule out that he in­flu­enced the out­come and said he met with some House mem­bers, in­clud­ing Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry of North Car­o­lina.

“I have worked real hard to put out good, sound in­form­a­tion that people can rely on,” he said in an in­ter­view. “And I think some of the work we pro­duced and put out did in­flu­ence — hope­fully, it in­flu­enced some people; I’ve been told that it does.”

The fi­nal House bill served to unite the fray­ing GOP con­fer­ence, no small achieve­ment in a Con­gress that has seen Re­pub­lic­ans’ in­tern­al dis­agree­ments spill in­to the open.

“The res­ult was people who felt for a while that they might have been ig­nored felt a part of the pro­cess and it res­ul­ted, I think, in unity,” Ses­sions said.

Re­pub­lic­ans have been split over how to pro­ceed on im­mig­ra­tion since na­tion­al lead­ers began to call for com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form in their well-doc­u­mented 2012 Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee autopsy, and the Sen­ate last year passed an over­haul to the cur­rent sys­tem with GOP sup­port.

The re­cent bor­der crisis again put the is­sue un­der the na­tion­al spot­light, and House Re­pub­lic­ans were poised to suc­cumb to in­tern­al di­vi­sions and leave town be­fore passing any­thing in re­sponse to Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­quest for $3.7 bil­lion and the Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic bill to ap­pro­pri­ate $2.7 bil­lion.

Ses­sions saw what was hap­pen­ing, with the me­dia already lam­bast­ing Re­pub­lic­ans over their dis­agree­ment, and sug­ges­ted that the House had to pass something in re­sponse.

“What I would say is, the whole House came to real­ize that they should not go home without hav­ing voted in op­pos­i­tion to the pres­id­ent’s stated pro­pos­al to grant un­law­fully 5 to 6 mil­lion people leg­al status and work per­mits. I mean, how could they ig­nore that?” he said.

Ses­sions’s ar­gu­ment cen­ters on the no­tion that White House is bor­der­ing on “law­less­ness,” by sug­gest­ing that it may ex­pand leg­al pro­tec­tions to up to 6 mil­lion people.

In­deed, it’s a po­s­i­tion that many Re­pub­lic­ans have seized on. Po­ten­tial 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Ted Cruz of Texas reg­u­larly cri­ti­cizes the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for over­step­ping its au­thor­it­ies and blamed the bor­der crisis dir­ectly on the pres­id­ent’s 2012 ex­ec­ut­ive or­der.

But un­like Cruz, Ses­sions’s mo­tiv­a­tions are not viewed through the lens of 2016.

“Ses­sions is the one ac­tu­ally put­ting out the ar­gu­ments,” Krikori­an said. “Cruz is more Hol­ly­wood.”

Alabama polit­ic­al strategist Brent Buchanan also poin­ted out that Ses­sions has long op­posed am­nesty, even work­ing against George W. Bush’s ef­forts at an over­haul in 2006 and 2007.

“You might fall asleep if you listen to him speak for 30 minutes, but he’s also very re­spec­ted,” he said.

In Tues­day’s speech, Ses­sions even sug­ges­ted that fed­er­al em­ploy­ees tasked with car­ry­ing out ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders dis­obey them. “Their duty is to say, ‘No,’ ” he said.

The im­mig­ra­tion is­sue has dogged Re­pub­lic­ans polit­ic­ally, with many pun­dits and even some mod­er­ate law­makers point­ing out that op­pos­ing a path­way to cit­izen­ship could turn away the grow­ing His­pan­ic vot­ing bloc.

Ses­sions does not see an in­com­pat­ib­il­ity between his po­s­i­tion and the party’s cam­paign goals, though.

“It ab­so­lutely is cor­rect that the Re­pub­lic­an Party needs to em­brace “¦ our neigh­bors and reach out to the His­pan­ic com­munity,” he said.

But wheth­er the party sup­ports His­pan­ics is not the ques­tion. In­stead, the is­sue is wheth­er the U.S. is a coun­try of laws, he said.

“I think, in many ways, the main­stream me­dia has framed this as some­how a de­bate over wheth­er or not you like im­mig­ra­tion or His­pan­ics when in truth the Amer­ic­an people, their heart has been right on this from the be­gin­ning,” Ses­sions said. “They have not been against im­mig­ra­tion. They’re not for elim­in­at­ing im­mig­ra­tion, but they are very much op­posed to law­less­ness and in­justice in the sys­tem.”

What We're Following See More »
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
CITIZENS UNITED PT. 2?
Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
2 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."

Source:
INFLUENTIAL APPROPRIATOR
Former Sen. Conrad Burns Dies in Montana
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Conrad Burns, the colorful livestock auctioneer and radio executive from Montana who served three terms as a senator, died on Thursday at age 81. Burns "was ousted from office in 2006 under the specter of scandal after developing close ties to "super-lobbyist" Jack Abramoff," although no charges were ever filed.

Source:
BETTING ON CARS
Biden Goes Max Biden at the Vatican
3 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In an exchange not ripped from the page of The Onion, Vice President Biden revealed to a Vatican cardinal that he's been betting reporters on which cars are faster. After meeting privately with Pope Francis, Biden met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State. Within moments of greeting one another, Biden said that he'd met with the pope and, gesturing to the press pool, "I've met with these guys too." Singling out reporter Gardiner Harris, who recounted the exchange, he said, "I had to pay this man $10. He's from the New York Times. We had a bet: which is the faster car, the newer Cadillac or the new [Tesla]. ... The Tesla's two tenths of a second faster. But I lost. I paid my $10." He joked that he's "seeking absolution."

17 ARRESTED
Trump’s First California Rally Turns Ugly
5 hours ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump held his first rally in California Thursday night, and things were chaotic: "Hundreds of demonstrators filled the street outside the Orange County amphitheater where ... stomping on cars, hurling rocks at motorists and forcefully declaring their opposition to the Republican presidential candidate. Traffic came to a halt as a boisterous crowd walked in the roadway, some waving American and Mexican flags. Protesters smashed a window on at least one police cruiser, punctured the tires of a police sport utility vehicle, and at one point tried to flip a police car."

Source:
×