When federal prosecutors came to San Diego for conferences in the 1980s, the U.S. attorney there, Peter Nuñez, would invite them to the border to survey the chaotic conditions.
“No fences, few lights, no cameras. Thousands of illegal aliens coming across the border,” he recalled last week.
One person who went along, he said, was Jeff Sessions, then U.S. attorney for the southern district of Alabama. The two men bonded over a shared belief that too many people were immigrating to America — whether they jumped the border or entered legally.
Eventually, Nuñez became board chairman of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that pushes for strict curbs on immigration. Sessions went on to be elected senator from Alabama and will sit Tuesday for the start of his two-day Senate confirmation hearing as President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to be attorney general.
Already well known as the Senate’s fiercest opponent of immigration, Sessions holds views shaped in part as he forged close ties over several decades to the Center for Immigration Studies and two other groups with similar agendas, NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform. With Sessions poised to be an influential voice on immigration policy in the Trump administration, these formerly fringe groups have their best chance yet to see Washington policy turn decisively in their direction.
"He's going to do great,” Trump said Monday of Sessions, dismissing any possible concerns over his confirmation. “High-quality man."
Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which organizes grass-roots opposition to pro-immigration measures, said he recognized a kindred spirit in Sessions when he first visited him in his Senate office in the 1990s.
“You’re always looking for the people who understand that legal immigration has to be kept down,” Beck said, adding that Sessions immediately agreed with Numbers’ argument that more immigrants hurt American workers.
“He’s kept that flame alive. We now have the chief cheerleader for [that viewpoint] as attorney general.”
The organizations have pushed for uncompromising enforcement, and oppose attempts to provide legal status for people in the U.S. illegally. Their ultimate goal, though, is not just to lock down the border, but to dramatically reduce the numbers of immigrants coming to the U.S.
Sessions plunged into his crucial role in the movement when he helped lead the opposition to the 2007 immigration reform bill supported by former President George W. Bush, which ultimately failed in the Senate.
“No one played a more important and public role in defeating it,” the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which presented Sessions with an award for his work against the legislation, wrote in its newsletter. “Like a grand master chess player, Sessions devised strategy after strategy to block, thwart, delay and ultimately defeat the bill.”
Since then, Sessions has visited the federation’s annual Hold Their Feet to the Fire meeting that rallies conservative activists to oppose immigration.
In 2013, Sessions worked again to derail another bill to reform the immigration system. A lawyer for the Center for Immigration Studies went to work for him on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Sessions ran the immigration subcommittee, on rallying opposition to the measure; it passed the Senate but never came up for a vote in the House.
“We were the spearhead of work during that legislation,” said the attorney, Janice Kephart, adding that Sessions was “extremely demanding” in insisting that staff analyze the entire 1,700-page bill. “The thing for him on lower immigration really has to do with keeping jobs in America. He did stand out in ways that ticked off his fellow Republicans at times.”
In fighting against the two bills, many Republicans talked about the rule of law and securing borders. But few went as far as Sessions, who adopted the populist arguments of the restrictionist groups, saying that pro-immigration business interests were selling out unskilled American workers.
He also sided with the groups after Republican leaders wrote a report examining the GOP’s 2012 presidential election loss and argued that the party was doomed unless it embraced immigration reform and increased the party’s standing with Latinos. Sessions spoke out on behalf of people who opposed immigration as a threat to their way of living, a precursor to Trump’s campaign.
“This election … was lost because millions of dutiful Americans didn’t think we cared enough about people like them,” Sessions said in a 2013 speech to a far-right group, the David Horowitz Freedom Center. “Is it going to help their children find a job if we legalize 10 million people? I don’t think so. The Chamber of Commerce isn’t very concerned about that.”
Little economic evidence exists showing that more immigration pushes down wages or cost Americans jobs, according advocates for a path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally. They say those views are often a smokescreen to conceal a racially driven anti-immigrant agenda.
All three groups trace their heritage in part to John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist and population control advocate who sought to create a network of policy organizations to push the cause of immigration restriction. Tanton, who is still listed on the Federation for American Immigration Reform’s board of advisors, also wrote about the threat immigrants posed to the “European American” majority values.
Group representatives say the charge of racism is a canard to distract from a debate about proper immigration levels. The Center for Immigration Studies no longer has anything to do with Tanton or white supremacists, said Mark Krikorian, its executive director.
“He had a tin ear and no real familiarity with how this issue rankles some people,” Krikorian said of Tanton. “He’s their hate figure and has given them some ammunition for it.” Beck has said NumbersUSA has not had ties to Tanton since 2002.
The Senate should "hold Sessions accountable" for his long alliance with the anti-immigration groups, Lynn Tramonte of America’s Voice, a group that advocates for a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally, said in an email. “Americans deserve to have a a full and public airing of Sessions’ relationship with extremist organizations as part of this process.”
As attorney general, Sessions would have a great deal of influence over immigration issues. Immigration courts would be under his control, and he could instruct prosecutors to file more charges against border crossers and press so-called sanctuary cities to end policies of refusing to cooperate with federal immigration law enforcement.
Sessions’ allies in the immigration control groups are hoping that he goes further, including measures that are likely to make more pro-business Republicans squirm. Beck said he would like to see Sessions ramp up prosecutions of company owners who hire immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
“He knows that if these businesses were not hiring an illegal labor force, we would not have hardly any illegal immigration,” Beck said.
Sessions, as well as Trump, has joined the groups in arguing against birthright citizenship and what they call “chain migration,” in which one family member sponsors others to come to the U.S.
Questioning of birthright citizenship, which was granted by the 14th Amendment, alarms civil rights lawyers.
“His legal views on civil rights and immigration law are reactionary,” said Joanne Lin, senior legal counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, adding that the attorney general’s job is to “interpret and enforce the Constitution.”
“It would seek to overturn 150 years of constitutional history and move the country back to the time of the Civil War.”
For immigrant advocates, the larger question is how much influence Sessions will wield in the new Trump administration.
Sessions endorsed Trump early and helped shape Trump’s own anti-free trade, build-a-wall message that helped him win over working-class voters in states that have suffered from lost manufacturing jobs. Stephen Miller, a longtime Sessions aide who worked on the senator’s immigration initiatives, joined the Trump campaign early last year and will be a senior advisor to Trump.
The restrictionists were also cheered when Andrew Puzder, Trump’s pro-immigration nominee for Labor secretary, said he would support Trump’s agenda.
But Trump has proved willing to ignore even his closest advisors when it suits him, and Sessions’ support might not be enough to cement anti-immigration groups’ views into policy.
“It will be interesting to see just what the administration does to accommodate these people,” said Liz Mair, a Republican consultant who has worked on immigration reform. “I just don’t know that Trump sees the world the same way they do.”
2:45 p.m.: This story was updated with comment from Trump and from an immigration advocate.
This story was originally published at 1:05 p.m.