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
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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.”

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