If there was any question whether President-elect Donald Trump would make a U-turn on his immigration agenda after the election, it was quickly answered with this month’s announcement that he was tapping Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) to be attorney general.
For years, Sessions has led the charge in Congress to curb, repeal, and resist efforts to reform the nation’s immigration system, including repeated criticisms of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants undocumented youth temporary legal status and freedom from deportation.
While DACA falls under the Department of Homeland Security, Sessions, as a member of Trump’s cabinet, would have the president’s ear as he decides whether to maintain the program, cancel it, or even use personal information on DACA applications to ramp up deportations of participants and their families.
“The incoming administration has promised to end DACA, and based on the individuals who President-elect Trump is nominating or hoping to appoint, such as Jeff Sessions and his immigration adviser Kris Kobach, we have no belief that President-elect Trump is walking back on that promise,” said Jose Magaña-Salgado, managing policy attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resources Center. “We expect, though we don’t know for sure, that DACA in some way or another will be ended.”
Thanu Yakupitiyage, senior communications manager for the New York Immigration Coalition, echoed those sentiments.
“Given his track record, obviously we are concerned,” she said. “Whether DACA gets canceled as a program is on President-elect Trump, but obviously it’s his cabinet that will inform his opinion.”
(Read: Students Fear Trump’s Vow to End DACA Could Mean Deportations — and an End to Their College Dreams)
A career battling immigration
Sessions — who was once denied confirmation for a judgeship by former colleagues concerned about a string of racist comments — boasts proudly of his Senate record on quashing increased immigration. He argues on his website that it is “the unprecedented flow of immigration that is sapping the wages and job prospects of those living and working here today.”
In 2007, he led Senate opposition to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act proposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and supported by then-President George W. Bush. The bill, which aimed to pair increased border security with a pathway to citizenship, attracted criticism from both sides of the political aisle. In the end, lawmakers decided not to vote on it.
"The Congressional Budget Office found that this legislation would have allowed 8.7 million more illegal aliens in the United States over the next 20 years,” Sessions said in a statement at the time. “We would be squandering a historic opportunity to reform our immigration system if we accepted policies that reduced illegality by only 13 percent. We can and must do better.”
Sessions waged a similar fight in 2013, when the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators including Republican Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey, put forth a comprehensive immigration-reform bill. Sessions became one of the bill’s most vocal opponents, arguing that it would grant legal status to some 11 million undocumented immigrants and hurt U.S. workers.
“Our duty is to represent the people that are here, the people whose parents fought the wars and made America great first,” Sessions told the Los Angeles Times. “And even though we have sympathy for the people who want to come here — and even those who’ve been here a long time illegally … we need to be sure that what we do does not place our workers, our people who need jobs, at an adverse advantage.”
After the Senate passed the measure, Sessions distributed to House members a book brimming with data and talking points against the bill; House Republicans decided not to vote on it.
In 2014, when Congress was debating how to respond to the swelling numbers of unaccompanied Central American children swarming the border, Sessions argued that any legislation addressing the crisis should also prevent Obama from expanding DACA.
Earlier this year, Sessions praised a Supreme Court decision opposing an Obama program that would have given deportation relief and work permits to undocumented parents of American children or permanent residents. He also introduced legislation that would return unaccompanied undocumented children attempting to cross the Mexican border back to their home country.
Sessions’s rhetoric on immigration persisted right through the election. In his speech at the Republican National Convention, he accused Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton of embracing “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants while praising Trump for his willingness to build a wall along the Mexican border.
‘We’re going to make a determination’
Shortly after the election, Trump gave an interview to 60 Minutes that some took as an indication that he might be softening his approach to DACA-eligible immigrants.
“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, we have a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate,” he said. “After the border is secured and after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination on the people that you’re talking about, who are terrific people, they’re terrific people, but we are going to make a determination at that.”
But DACA supporters such as Magaña-Salgado fear that Sessions’s appointment signals that Trump not only will make good on his promise to end the program but also could target DACA participants, as well as relatives listed on their applications, for deportation.
They also worry that Sessions could change the deportation process. As attorney general, he would control the makeup of the Board of Immigration Appeals, the nation’s highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws. The board can determine the scope of due process for immigrants, their eligibility for benefits and the circumstances under which they can contest their removal from the country, Magaña-Salgado said.
Finally, Sessions would be less likely to step in and prevent states from passing anti-immigration laws, advocates said.
“My reaction … has been an extreme amount of dismay, disappointment,” Magaña-Salgado said of Sessions’s nomination. “And furious fear that our nation’s top law-enforcement official, who has a history of essentially advocating for the trampling of civil rights across every spectrum, is going to be in a position to effectuate those philosophies.”