To be candid, there’s not usually a line of reporters waiting to talk to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL).
But last week, with only four days to go until the Iowa caucuses, the 69-year-old glassy-eyed former U.S. attorney nearly forgot to cast his vote on a routine matter he was so busy moving from one interview to the next outside of the Senate chamber.
The four-term senator is hardly a new face in the Republican Party, nor is the soft-spoken and twangy Sessions considered the party’s rising star. But suddenly, almost out of nowhere, and for reasons even he doesn’t fully grasp, Sessions has become a talisman for GOP presidential candidates. Association with him and his hardline on immigration, with its nativist echoes, confers instant credibility in a presidential campaign defined by Donald Trump’s appeals to an anxious electorate’s baser instincts.
If Sessions was a mostly lonely figure on the far-right fringe of previous immigration debates, he is now at the fractious center of the most virulent debate on immigration the country has seen in decades, with Hispanic immigrants, Syrian refugees, and even foreign doctors, engineers, and Ph.Ds among those coming under withering scorn. Sessions hasn’t budged; rather the GOP has come to him.
Sessions has spent most of his tenure in the Senate trying to limit even some legal forms of immigration to the United States, railing against many moderate Republican or business-backed efforts to soften the GOP’s record with Latino voters as the party desperately grappled to expand its base.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” he said in 2006 before he went toe-to-toe with his own party’s President against an immigration reform reform bill. He re-litigatied his anti-immigration reform battle all over again in 2013, just a little over six months after Mitt Romney secured only 27 percent of the Latino vote in the presidential election.
“Our law enforcement system is in a state of collapse. It is a deliberate plan by the President of the United States and it is wrong,” Sessions said from the floor of the Senate in response to the president’s executive actions.
In 2014 just after a new Republican majority of senators were elected, Sessions wrote an op-ed in Politico calling on fellow senators to use the power of the purse to stop Obama’s executive action on immigration. His plan was to not pass any spending bill that included money that flowed to implementing Obama’s executive action.
“We cannot yield to open borders. We cannot let one executive edict erase the immigration laws of an entire nation. If we believe America is a sovereign country, with enforceable boundaries, and a duty to protect its own people, then we have no choice but to fight and to win,” Sessions wrote.
On his website, his press releases warn that “America has 10 Million more Foreign-Born residents than the entire European Union” and “U.S. Issued 680,000 green cards to migrants from Muslim nations over the last five years.”
Time magazine once declared that the son of Cuban immigrants –Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio would be the Republican “savior” in 2016, but as it has turned out –much to the establishment’s dismay – it is hardline views on immigration like those of Sessions dictating this show.
Even a man who has led a sometimes independent battle on Capitol Hill against legislation legalizing undocumented immigrants, a man who often cites anti-immigrant group the Center for Immigration Studies on the Senate floor, a man who has never disavowed Trump’s plan to deport 11 million immigrants is baffled by the current state of the 2016 election and how he has become the Republican Party’s new center of gravity.
As ABC News noted in 2013, “Sessions offered 15 amendments to the [immigration bill], most of which would have gutted its core proposals. (Only one of Sessions’ minor amendments was adopted without being changed).”
During his failed effort back then, Sessions’s office was busy handing out materials from conservative voices in the party sounding the alarm on the bill, ABC reported. In the end, the immigration bill passed the Senate with a strong, bipartisan vote.
Less than three years later, Sessions is back in the driver’s seat on the party’s immigration policy and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) – a lead author of the 2013 immigration bill and a former GOP nominee for president – told TPM he’s done predicting what is to come.
Sessions has been driving his hardliner train so long sans political takers that he himself seems taken aback by his new star role where top Republican presidential candidates are dropping his name every chance they get.
“Have you ever been such a hot commodity in an election before?” TPM asked Sessions.
In August, Trump held a rally in Sessions’ home of Mobile that attracted somewhere between 17,000 and 30,000 people (the number is disputed). At the rally, hunched over the podium in his signature, red “Make America Great Again” trucker hat, Trump took a minute to bring on stage the original man behind big old border walls and limited immigration, Alabama’s home state senator, Sessions.
“We have a great politician here. We have a man here who really helped me. And he is the one person I sought his counsel because he has been so spot-on. He is so highly respected. Has anybody ever heard of Senator Jeff Sessions?” Trump said as the crowd roared. “Jeff, come up. Where is Jeff? Get over here, Jeff. Look at him. He is like 20 years old. Unbelievable guy.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), the man running a close second to Trump in Iowa, has also tried to clinch some of Sessions’ conservative, tough-border mojo.
In the Capitol, away from the Trump-pumped crowd, Sessions pauses when he speaks as he carefully searches for the right word to describe this phenomena where the top two candidates in Iowa are embracing his immigration positions and heralding them as their own. It is a strong contrast to the off-the-cuff, seemingly mindless pattern of speech flowing from the mouth of GOP presidential frontrunner Trump.
“Unusual,” Sessions finally settles on the word.
But Sessions says he does understand what is going on, what pundits are scratching their heads all over cable television about.
“For the last thirty years, politicians have promised they are going to fix the broken immigration system and they never have done it,” Sessions told TPM. “People feel like I am trying, that I share their view that we need to fix this problem and that I am actually trying.”
He recalls how in 2013, he was leading a pretty small calvary into battle, but that eventually he believes the legislation stopped in its tracks in the House of Representatives because Republican voters were really on his side.
“They spent a billion and a half dollars on that immigration bill and they ran ads nationwide. They had lobbyists everywhere, and it was nothing but the American people that pushed back on that thing,” Sessions said.
In December, after enduring a series of attacks from Rubio, Cruz was struggling for a way to prove he’d never actually wanted the so-called Gang of Eight Senate immigration bill to pass in 2013.
Rubio had alleged that in introducing an amendment to bar immigrants from citizenship, but not legal residency, Cruz had in fact advocated for a plan to legally allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S.
Cruz had tried to hit back, claiming the intention of the amendment all along was to sink the bill.
But the issue was looming and it appeared Cruz needed help boosting his conservative-immigration bonafides. It was Sessions who came out and spoke to an audience in Daphne, Alabama.
“Ted Cruz was with me, Steve King, Mike Lee and others who were opposed to this bill. Don’t let anyone tell you differently,” Sessions said, according to a report from al.com.
The truth of the matter is that if Sessions were to endorse Trump over Cruz or Cruz over Trump, it might actually have an impact on the first-in-the-nation presidential contest. Earlier this week a key Sessions aide, Stephen Miller, left the senator’s office to join the Trump campaign.
For now, however, Sessions says, he’s just there to be helpful. He’s not endorsing anyone.
“I don’t know if I will ever endorse anybody, but I do believe that a candidate who can effectively understand and articulate the American people’s concerns on immigration and on trade can win this election,” Sessions said. “Everybody is for the economy, everybody is for GDP, everybody is for more education, everybody is for more highways. How do you distinguish yourself?”
It turns out embracing Sessions’ immigration policies is how.
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