No Sanctuary

The Senate’s Anti-Immigration Warrior Heads to DOJ

Sen. Jeff Sessions has made a career of pushing anti-immigration policies, positions he’ll now take straight to the Department of Justice.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

On Wednesday evening, Sen. Michael Bennet took to the Senate floor as Sen. Tim Scott—the chamber’s only African American Republican—finished speaking in support of Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination as attorney general. Scott’s Republican colleagues offered him back-slaps and handshakes as they all left the floor.

Then Bennet addressed a few dozen tourists in the gallery and a handful of staffers on the floor.

Not many people may have been listening to Sen. Bennet, but he had been hearing from thousands—23,000, to be exact. That was how many emails and phone calls he said he got from constituents opposing Sessions’ confirmation.

“Many of them I cannot read on the floor for fear of violating Senate rules,” Bennet said flatly, his voice tense.

His constituents, he continued, were angry—in large part because of Sessions’ views on immigration. It’s an issue that made Sessions a star in Tea Party circles, a darling of conservative media, a favorite of restrictionist think tanks, and a top confidante of President Donald Trump.

It’s also an issue where Session and Bennet squared off—and Bennet lost.

It’s how Sessions beat him that continued to anger the senior senator from Colorado.

Bennet was one of the eight authors of a 2013 comprehensive immigration overhaul bill which passed the Senate with bipartisan support but never got a vote in the House. That was due in part to Sessions’ fervent opposition. Bennet was used to his Senate colleagues saying things he disagreed with or thought were incorrect, he said. But it was nothing like what he heard from Sessions about his bill.

“That was the first time I had ever heard that relentlessness saying things that just weren’t right,” Bennet said.

Then he paused: “I’m being careful with my language.”

About two hours after Bennet spoke, the Senate confirmed Sessions as the next attorney general, with 52 members in favor and 47 opposed.

The vote fell largely along party lines: Every Republican supported the Alabaman, and every Democrat except Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, opposed him. Sessions is best known for his views on immigration and policing: that legal immigration levels should be lower, and that federal oversight of police departments is often counterproductive.

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The Alabaman and one of his top Senate aides, Stephen Miller, basically became a two-man think tank for Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Sessions was the first Senator to endorse Trump, and stood by him through a historically ugly campaign cycle. Miller, meanwhile, gave eyebrow-raising soliloquies to Trump rally crowds and is now one of the president’s top advisors.

Both men spent years pushing for Trump-style policies on refugees and Muslim immigration; when Trump’s presidential bid was still just the subject of furious eye-rolling, Miller and Sessions were sinking Congressional immigration reform efforts and tearing up talk radio.

“It is an unpleasant but unavoidable fact that bringing in a large unassimilated flow of migrants from the Muslim world creates the conditions possible for radicalization and extremism to take hold,” Sessions said on Nov. 19, 2015.

Just a few weeks later, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Sessions will take that single-mindedness to the Justice Department, where he will likely be Trump’s most trusted and powerful cabinet secretary. As attorney general, he will oversee the country’s massively backlogged immigration court system, where judges decide which undocumented immigrants will face deportation. And he’s expected to make significant changes to the priorities of the department’s Civil Rights Division. Under Obama, the division investigated police departments that faced accusations of systemic racial bias. Under Sessions, those investigations will likely be a much lower priority.

But for Sessions, the biggest change may be one that generated comparatively little rancor during his contentious confirmation process: his responsibility on counterterror issues.

“Sessions is going to go from having relative freedom of movement to being guarded 24/7, guards outside his house, security with him all the time,” said Mark Corallo, who was director of public affairs for the Justice Department under former Attorney General John Ashcroft. “That alone makes a person’s eyes open, and you feel that weight of the seriousness of your position.”

“Everybody notices how a president ages during his time in office: Just the weight of the responsibility tends to age the person,” Corallo added. “It’s the same for the attorney general.”

Sessions will take on the new job acutely aware of the critics scrutinizing how he handles that responsibility. In his final Senate floor speech, accepting the nomination to head the Justice Department, he acknowledged the controversy that his nomination generated.

“I’ve always tried to keep my disagreements from being personal, I’ve always tried to be courteous to my colleagues,” he said slowly in his thick Southern drawl. “Still, tension is built in the system. It is there.”