U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushed in Norfolk on Friday for wide-ranging immigration reforms and restrictions that he contended would make America a safer place to live.
Sessions, the former longtime Alabama senator, advocated for a border wall, an end to “chain migration” — the administration’s term for family members coming to the United States to join extended relatives already here — and a “merit-based” immigration system.
His comments — to the media and to federal, state and local law enforcement officials at the downtown Slover Library — came three days before the Trump administration is scheduled to send a major new immigration proposal to Congress.
The administration has said it will propose a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children, a key concession to Democrats. In return, the plan calls for $25 billion in funding for a wall along the border with Mexico, an end to lottery and extended family immigration and other sharp restrictions.
The plan is expected to face stiff criticism on the left — from those opposed to the border wall and other curbs. But it’s also expected to face sharp opposition from the right for providing an “amnesty” path to the so-called Dreamers.
Sessions is expected to be a crucial point man for Trump as talks on a possible immigration deal heat up.
“For a permanent fix to our immigration laws, Congress needs to act,” Sessions said Friday. “The American people have known for more than 30 years that our immigration system is broken. … It is time to end the lawlessness and create a system that serves the national interest.”
Sessions — whose speech was met with protesters on East Plume Street outside the library — said there’s “nothing to apologize for” in advocating for a merit-based immigration system, which he said means “welcoming the best and the brightest.” Such a move would bring in more people with education and skills, he said, thereby improving the country’s economy and national security.
That’s better, he said, than picking immigrants based on “not very close” relatives already here.
“Employers don’t roll dice when deciding who they want to hire,” Sessions said. “Our incredible military doesn’t draw straws when deciding whom to accept. But for some reason, when we’re picking new Americans — the future of this country — our government uses a randomized lottery system and chain migration.”
A merit-based system, he said, “is not unique.” It’s used in Canada, Australia and other countries, he said, with people “chosen based on their likelihood of assimilating, thriving and contributing to society as a whole.”
Sessions asserted that a border wall — one of Trump’s biggest 2016 campaign promises — “will make it harder and more expensive for illegal aliens to break our laws and smuggle drugs or even human beings into this country.” The wall “will send a message to the world that in the United States of America, we enforce our laws.”
Moreover, Sessions promised Friday to crack down on “sanctuary cities” — or cities that work to protect illegal immigrants from deportation — which he said places “an unfair burden on our federal agents.”
Federal law enforcement grants, he said, should go only to cities that “cooperate with immigration enforcement,” adding that the Justice Department recently requested documents from 23 cities and states around the country to determine if they are following federal immigration law.
“If these cities want to receive law enforcement grants, they can,” he said. “They just have to stop impeding federal law enforcement.”
Also in hSessions asserted that illegal immigrants commit crimes at higher rates than the native born.
A recent report from the Department of Homeland Security, he said, found that there are 40,000 “known or suspected aliens” in federal prisons, or 20 percent of the total prison system population. That’s more than two-thirds greater than their share of the general population.
According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, there are now about 183,000 federal inmates out of a total state and federal incarcerated population of roughly 2.4 million. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly half of all federal arrests in 2014 were for immigration-related offenses.
“Any crime committed by improperly vetted immigrants — and especially illegal aliens — is, by definition, preventable,” Sessions said. He also highlighted some federal cases recently prosecuted in Virginia, including recent 11-year sentences to two Sudanese nationals convicted of flying others to the Middle East to fight for ISIS.
In July, Trump said he would not have appointed Sessions as AG had he known he would recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Trump was also said to be considering firing Sessions, at one point saying, “We’ll see” when asked if he would keep his job.
But Sessions was able to save his job. And his relationship with Trump has seemingly warmed in recent months, with Trump no longer deriding him publicly and now saying Sessions has his full support.
Sessions still oversees a Justice Department in the midst of the Russia saga. He did not field any questions in Norfolk Friday and didn’t respond when a reporter shouted a question asking whether Trump had tried to fire Robert Mueller last summer as special prosecutor into the Russia probe. That was in response to news reports late Thursday that Trump had decided to fire Mueller last summer — but backed off when his lawyer threatened to quit rather than carry out the order.
Meanwhile, the FBI — the Department of Justice’s largest agency — is now facing growing charges from congressional Republicans of political bias against Trump.
Sessions addressed those various concerns in his speech Friday, too.
The first thing he thinks about “when I wake up in the morning,” Sessions said, is getting the Justice Department “back to its fundamental mission of enforcing the law and protecting the safety of Americans with integrity and fairness.”
The Justice Department, he said, sees questions from Congress as a good thing. He said he expects fairness and integrity from everyone in the department, adding that “sunlight truly is the best disinfectant.”
“It means absolutely eliminating political bias or favoritism — in either direction — from our investigations and prosecutions,” he said. “That sort of thinking is the antithesis of what the department stands for, and I won’t tolerate it. It means identifying mistakes of the past, and correcting them for the future. When we find problems, we’re addressing them head on, not sweeping them under the rug.”
Hampton Police Chief Terry Sult, who attended Sessions’ talk, said there were “no surprises” in the AG’s speech. But he said he agreed that when immigrants are arrested, deported, and then come back again to commit more crimes, “that’s a problem.”
“Immigrants are no different than anybody else,” Sult said. “It’s a small portion of the population typically that are involved in crime. But those can cause great harm. And so some of what’s being said about securing borders and that sort of thing makes sense. Securing borders and reducing the flow of illegal drugs into our communities. It’s not a silver bullet — a stop gap — but it is an effective tool.”
Though Hampton does have some immigrants, Sult said, it’s far less than in some other cities. A bigger problem in Hampton, he said, is “citizens that are local who are violating the law.”
“We are focused on local crime,” Sult said. “But it doesn’t mean that we don’t partner with federal agencies, because they help us with local crime.” The chief added that if people have a problem with laws being enforced — including federal immigration law — “then change the law.”
“There’s a process for that,” Sult said. “But don’t politicize the enforcement side of it.”
Dujardin can be reached by telephone at 757-247-4749.