The president has expressed conflicting emotions about those who were brought to the country as children, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed no such qualms. “There is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws,” he said.
WASHINGTON — As an up-and-coming politician in Alabama, Jeff Sessions watched as his state’s poultry industry illegally hired Mexican and Central American immigrants to jobs that had once been filled by poor, unskilled American workers. As a senator, Sessions argued that displaced American workers like these — not the people replacing them — deserved compassion.
So when President Donald Trump chose Sessions, now the attorney general, to announce Tuesday the end of an Obama-era immigration program that shielded young immigrants from deportation, there was no doubt what message he would deliver.
A few weeks ago, Trump was so enraged that Sessions had recused himself from a Justice Department investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election that Trump publicly expressed his regrets about making him the nation’s chief law enforcement official. The president criticized Sessions so often that he seemed to be encouraging him to quit. But Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump in the campaign and his first Cabinet appointment, endured.
And on Tuesday, Sessions not only served as the administration’s spokesman, he also spoke directly to Trump’s base in a blunt, uncompromising way that the president himself was uncomfortable doing.
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“The White House needed him to do this because I don’t think Trump would have delivered a convincing performance,” said Mark Krikorian, a Sessions ally and the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “His own body language and ad-libbing would have undercut his message.”
Trump campaigned on a promise to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). But as president, he has chafed at being seen as punishing children for the crimes of their parents.
He has purged the White House of some hard-line voices, like Stephen Bannon, his former chief strategist, but Sessions is not alone in his hard-line views. Sessions’ longtime aide, Stephen Miller, is a senior White House policy adviser who shares his former boss’ strident views on immigration. But on the opposite side are two formidable foes — the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who are White House advisers and encouraged Donald Trump to extend protections to the estimated 800,000 people protected under DACA.
“I think he’s genuinely uncomfortable,” Krikorian said, referring to the president. “And I’m sure he’s constantly hearing from his daughter, ‘Oh, Daddy, look at the little babies.’”
But if the president was torn, Sessions had no such doubts and has argued that the nation’s compassion is being manipulated.
For years, he has encouraged politicians to speak to the millions of working Americans who have been frozen out of the immigration debate. He helped kill bipartisan immigration legislation and delivered impassioned speeches about the moral and legal obligation of strict border enforcement. And he was a key architect of Trump’s populist “America First” campaign agenda.
Tuesday’s speech gave Sessions his highest profile platform for those arguments. Reading his speech and taking no questions, he revisited many of the themes of his Senate years, declaring that the government’s first obligation is to ensure the well-being of its citizens.
“Enforcing the law saves lives, protects communities and taxpayers, and prevents human suffering,” Sessions said. “Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism.”
Roy Beck, whose group, NumbersUSA, advocates restricting immigration, watched the address and saw vintage Sessions, a man whom he has counted as an ally for decades.
“I was loving it,” Beck said.
The White House and Justice Department said Sessions made Tuesday’s announcement because it was a question of law.
In his remarks, Sessions said that President Barack Obama’s original executive action was unconstitutional, but did not explain how. He cited a federal appeals court ruling last year that blocked a similar immigration order, but that ruling did not say the executive action was unconstitutional. The Justice Department released no legal memos explaining Trump’s decision, and it did not elaborate on Sessions’ remarks about constitutionality.
“This is clearly the president’s decision and comes out of the White House, but it was interesting to see it was going to be delivered by the attorney general,” Beck said. “There’s no question the attorney general certainly stepped up to the plate, and, I think, was a tremendous spokesperson for the administration today.”
Trump came to office promising a hard line on immigration. He said he would build a wall along the southern border with Mexico to keep out “rapists,” “killers” and “bad hombres.” And he promised to increase deportations to protect American jobs. But Tuesday was not the first time that Sessions struck a sharper chord than Trump on the president’s signature issue.
Sessions, born into poverty in the Deep South, shaped the immigration views of Trump, a scion of a New York real estate empire. In January 2015, months before Trump entered the presidential race, Sessions issued a lengthy memo to his congressional colleagues and predicted a Republican candidate who spoke to the working class about immigration could win the White House.
“For decades, the American people have begged and pleaded for a just and lawful system of immigration that serves their interests,” Sessions wrote. He added, “Speak to that constituency — with clarity and compassion — and change the issue forever.”
Sessions revisited those themes Tuesday.
Supporters of DACA say it is cruel to take away a benefit from people who had no choice but to come to the United States. Sessions instead suggested it caused “terrible humanitarian consequences” by encouraging people to take young children on a dangerous trip across the border.
Sessions said the decision showed no animus to the many people who would soon face the threat of deportation: “This does not mean they are bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them … It means we are properly enforcing our laws.”