What's his future, Senator Sessions?

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

What Are Immigration Opponents Ashamed Of?

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

President Barack Obama appears ready to stake his claim on immigration with a sweeping executive action. This will produce outrage, fulminations and legislation on the opposite side of the immigration debate. One thing it won't produce? A clear declaration of what exactly immigration opponents want.

Members of Congress speak constantly of their opposition to "amnesty." They almost never mention the real-world consequence of denying amnesty to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.: "deportation."

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama is a perfect example. Sessions led the charge in 2013 against the immigration reform legislation that passed the Senate with 68 votes. He is a vocal opponent of "amnesty," and dismissed Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals as an "unlawful assumption of power to violate plain law of the United States."

Writing in Politico on Monday, Sessions boldly asserted the righteousness of his cause: 

On Election Day, Americans roared in protest against the President’s open-borders extremism. They rallied behind candidates who will defend the rule of law and put the needs of American workers and families first.

"Open-borders extremism" is an interesting characterization of the first president in memory who has overseen a net increase of approximately zero in illegal immigration. But enough about Obama. If Sessions opposes Obama's policies, what policies does the senator support?

There are, after all, a finite number of answers to the question of what to do about millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.:

1. You can offer them a path to legalization and/or citizenship.

2. You can deport them.

3. You can maintain the status quo, in which the undocumented remain in the U.S. without legal rights or recognition (and perhaps "self deport" in accord with the wishes of Mitt Romney).

I asked Sessions's communications director, Stephen Miller, which of these options Sessions supports. Here is his answer, via e-mail:

Senator Sessions' priority is to fight for jobs and wages for American workers. President Obama’s immigration plan -- work permits for illegal immigrants and permanently doubling the admission of new foreign workers -- helps open borders billionaires while slashing incomes and jobs for struggling families.

When I pointed out the obvious -- that his response was a non-answer that wasn't even pretending very hard -- Miller sent me a courteous reply:

We just have an honest difference of opinion. We believe an American citizen has more of a claim to a job than say, for instance, someone who illegally remained in the U.S. after their visa was revoked by federal authorities. We believe Americans should get higher wages, not be replaced with lower-wage guest workers as Silicon Valley proposes.

I’d love to continue this back-and-forth but I’m going to be out of pocket for the next few hours.

So Sessions, who along with Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas represents the hard end of anti-immigrant views in the Senate, shrinks from saying he supports deportation. He loudly condemns the status quo. And he's virulently opposed to amnesty.

The anti-immigrant forces have been on a two-year hot streak, sinking immigration reform in Congress and successfully exploiting opportunities, such as the spring and summer wave of Central American children at the border, to increase public fears and resistance to legalization. They enjoyed great success in the midterm elections. 

They have all the marks of a potent, durable political force. They're just too embarrassed to say out loud what exactly they're a force for.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net