WITH THE IRS harrassing Tea Party-affiliated 501(c)(3)s, the DOJ fishing out the Associated Press, the NSA snooping on Verizon customers, and, as I type, probably some other acronymed outfit infringing grossly upon the rights of some other more or less innocuous group, it’s easy to forget that a specter is haunting the United States: illegal immigration. This unfriendly ghost isn’t going away. The Senate floor is strewn with the corpses of dead immigration reform bills: McCain-Kennedy, Cornyn-Kyl (both 2005), others introduced by Arlen Specter (2006) and Harry Reid (2007). All of these proposed pieces of legislation were essentially variations on a theme—increase the number of guest workers and grant legal status to illegal aliens who are willing to pay fines and back taxes—and all of them were defeated, one or way another, in no small part thanks to the efforts of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.
The day before the latest attempt at comprehensive immigration reform, the bill sponsored by the so-called “Gang of Eight,” was introduced to the full Senate, I sat down in a comfortable leather recliner in Sessions’ Washington office. The senator, a brown-eyed, soft-spoken Senate veteran (he and his colleague Richard Shelby are the only two Alabama Republicans who have served multiple terms in the upper chamber since Reconstruction), supported President Bush’s tax cut packages and voted consistently in favor of the Iraq War, but opposed TARP and bazookaed the various Bush-era immigration reform bills. For a man whom Jonathan Chait recently termed a “Wonk McCarthyite,” he was surprisingly easygoing—so relaxed, in fact, that an aide had to interrupt twice to remind him of a conference call scheduled after our interview. But his affability belies real political intelligence, a head for understated maneuver that, when “prudent” (a word he seems to be very fond of), might be lowered into a battering ram for his principles.
The first thing I asked Sessions was whether he thought that the Gang of Eight bill, which he opposed vigorously in committee, had a good chance of passing. This, it turned out, was the wrong question. Not even Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the bipartisan “Gang” that introduced the eponymous 844-page bill, believes that the votes are there, and this may be the problem. Sessions suggests that the bills’ backers aren’t expecting it to pass in its present form. He’s worried that they’re playing a longer game, one that takes advantage of congressional desire to pass something—anything—with “immigration reform” attached to it.
“You make a few minor changes—fig leaf changes—that don’t really address the weaknesses inherent in the bill but which give people an excuse to say, ‘Well, now we can vote for it,’” he said. “That’s probably what the sponsors would like to see.” Putting forth a deliberately faulty bill with the intention of seeing it amended, albeit superficially, and only then passed, might sound odd, to say nothing of dishonest; but, as the old saw goes, the Washington Monument is the only thing in D.C. that’s always upright. It’s a half-crazy plan, which is to say, the sort of plan that often succeeds in the upper house.
STILL, SESSIONS remains optimistic. All opponents need to do, he argues, is make people aware of the bill’s many weaknesses. When I asked him for an example, Sessions, responding with a question, asked me whether I knew how many immigrants would receive legal status if it were to become law. “It’s a stunning number,” he said, “but the Democrats, the sponsors themselves, refuse to say how many.” He claims that over the next decade the Gang of Eight bill would make 30 million new people citizens or permanent residents. “That’s 10 percent of the population,” he said incredulously.
This potential increase in population is a problem, Sessions says, because illegal immigration is already hurting American workers, especially blue-collar workers. “I’m a conservative, and a conservative has to ask, ‘Is this prudent?’” He rattles off numbers taken from studies that show high immigration rates pulling down wages and contributing to unemployment. (He insisted that I needn’t take his word for it, and members of his staff made sure that a host of relevant analyses, journal articles, and policy papers ended up in my email inbox.) He points out that unemployment rates are higher now than they were in 2007, when he and then-Senator Jim DeMint worked to derail Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s own immigration reform bill.
At one point I mentioned to Sessions the calls I’d heard his staffers taking just before our meeting began. All of the callers seemed to be inquiring about his position regarding amnesty for illegal immigrants. “People are upset, and they’re using the word ‘amnesty’ to symbolize what they see as the heart of the problem,” he said thoughtfully. There comes the rub: Sessions dismissed large scale deportation of illegal immigrants, a solution favored by many radical immigration restrictionists, as “imprudent.” But he also admitted that he is worried about the problem that granting legal status to persons who have come to this country illegally poses for the rule of law: “It seems to be eroding at every turn under this administration,” he said. “If you can get past the border, you’re home free. You will never be deported. This cannot be the long-term policy of the United States.”
Does this mean then that, in some circumstances anyway, Sessions is in favor of some form of amnesty? “People who’ve been here a long time, who have real roots here and are doing real well should be given permanent status eventually,” he said. However, he does not think that citizenship should necessarily follow. “I do not believe there is any moral, legal, or constitutional reason that people who enter our country illegally should be given the same benefits as people who come legally.”
FOR SESSIONS there is no contradiction between his views on immigration and his championing of the free market. “People are different from bales of cotton,” he told me, easing back into the davenport. “People are different from portable radios.” Worker participations rates are, as he points out, lower than they have been in four decades, and average salaries have decreased 8 percent since 1999. He argues that if the size of the labor market were not increasing rapidly, employers would simply have to offer people more money. Elected officials should consider all of this very carefully: “A nation has an obligation to its citizens,” he maintained, “and those of us who are in Congress have an obligation to the American worker.”
To some, this populist rhetoric might smack of “economic patriotism,” but for Sessions it seems to be a logical extension of conservative principles: “You can say, ‘Well, unions say that,’ but unions aren’t wrong about everything,” he said. But Sessions is no libertarian either. “Some libertarians think that growth is the Holy Grail, that somehow if we just bring more people it’s all going to work out,” he said. “They’re all for open borders just like they are for free markets and free trade.”
Sessions’ willingness to disagree pointedly with libertarians is especially interesting in light of the fact that some of his younger Senate colleagues embrace the libertarian label to varying degrees. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a self-identified “libertarian conservative,” recently bemoaned a “stale and moss-covered” GOP. I mentioned Paul’s remark to Sessions and asked him about foreign policy. Here one gets the sense that he is a hawk, not a velociraptor.
“We need to be realistic in considering when we should deploy American power,” he told me. “Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq tells us that culture is a powerful thing, that we’re not able to waltz in, write a new constitution, create a democratic republic, and waltz out the door the next week. I for one will ask more questions than I have in the past.” Political regrets—if that is what these are—have never counted for very much, but it surely matters that Sessions feels like he might have something to gain—or at the very least nothing to lose—by distancing himself, at least implicitly, from the bellicosity of colleagues such as Lindsey Graham and John McCain, both of whom would like to see American intervention in Syria. An old dog may not be able to learn new tricks, but a sober statesman can and should sometimes change his mind.
BY THE TIME this magazine appears in mailboxes and on newsstands, the fate of the Gang of Eight bill may well be decided. But even if, like so many of its predecessors, it fails to pass, one gathers that the fight, for Sessions, will not be over. “American workers have been on a retrograde path,” he told me. “These are the people who’ve fought our wars, who manage our buildings, who produce our widgets. One way to make their lives better is not to dump into America an incredibly large number of new workers to compete for their jobs, their children’s jobs, their grandchildren’s jobs.”
I asked him whether he understands the feelings of his Republican colleagues who want to put the immigration issue behind them. “Yes, but that doesn’t mean you pass anything,” he said. He refuses to support any immigration bill that does not strengthen border security and facilitate the identification and deportation of future illegal immigrants. “If you’re not willing to do that,” he said, “you can’t tell the American people that you have a plan that will work, that will be honorable, and that we can be proud of.”