Immigration Newsmaker Transcript: A Conversation with Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions

By Mark Krikorian and Sen. Jeff Sessions on April 29, 2020


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Event Summary

The Center for Immigration Studies streamed an Immigration Newsmaker conversation featuring former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is campaigning to take back the Alabama U.S. Senate seat that he held for 20 years. This timely conversation with one of the nation’s top immigration experts takes place as President Trump contemplates signing a second Presidential Proclamation expanding suspension of certain immigration categories to help the American worker in a time of high unemployment.


Mark Krikorian
Executive Director
Center for Immigration Studies

Jeff Sessions
Former Attorney General
Department of Justice

MARK KRIKORIAN: Hello. My name is Mark Krikorian. I am executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

And joining us in the latest installment of our Immigration Newsmakers series is Jeff Sessions, former attorney general, former senator, candidate to return to the Senate, and one of the nation’s if not the leader, really, in trying to formulate sensible immigration policy in the national interest. Welcome, Senator. Thanks for – thank you for taking some time out for us.

JEFF SESSIONS: Thank you, Mark. It’s good to have worked with you over the years.

You know, you mentioned the national interest. When I became chairman of the Immigration Subcommittee of the Department of Justice, I changed the name to Immigration and the National Interest because immigration should serve the people’s interest of this country. It cannot be its purpose to serve billions of people around the globe. One estimate says a billion would like to come to the United States. So we, obviously, have to create a system that serves the people’s interest.

MR. KRIKORIAN: And I’d actually like to ask about the Senate before we get to current events. How did you – how were you drawn to immigration? How did you start getting involved in it? I mean, you were attorney general of Alabama, U.S. attorney there. It’s, obviously, not a – you know, a daily issue you would deal with, probably, in Alabama. So if you could just sort of give us a little background, why did you decide to take this up as an issue – a leading issue for you instead of any number of other issues that you could have focused on?

MR. SESSIONS: It fell into my lap, sort of. It’s something I had always thought the nation should do, and that is have a lawful system of immigration that serves the national interest. I found myself then on the Judiciary Committee, and this big bill came up to give amnesty now to illegal millions and a promise, merely, of enforcement in the future. I felt that it was right before me and I started digging into it, and I became absolutely convinced that the bill would guarantee legal status for millions of people who had broken into the country illegally but would not end the future flow of illegality.

So, to me, that was a nonstarter. It was a problem with the 1986 bill that President Reagan is reported to have said it was his worst mistake. And that is where we started from, and as I dug into it no one else did. I knew the details. I saw what we called the flaws and the loopholes, and we began to hammer that, make that public, and the American people began to see what was happening. And you could just feel the momentum move from for the bill that the people I call masters of the universe had all planned out, and it didn’t pass. And they took three different times at it, and I led the fight, I guess, each time, and each time it had the same fundamental flaw, Mark. As you know, it created amnesty for millions and no guarantee of enforcement.

MR. KRIKORIAN: And just to be clear, that’s not the Gang of Eight bill you’re talking about, where you did the same kind of thing with the Gang of Eight bill. This was actually the earlier bill, many years before that, that was sponsored by initially your late colleagues Ted Kennedy and John McCain, and pushed by President Bush. So I think a lot of people who are relatively new to the issue think that the Gang of Eight bill was the first big push on this and the first time you were involved, but in fact you stepped up and became a leader on this in the earlier attempt, which they didn’t call it the Gang of Eight but it was basically the same kind of thing. Is that correct?

MR. SESSIONS: That’s correct, Mark. It fundamentally had the same flaws. We learned all the loopholes in how the Border Patrol and our ICE officers are frustrated every day by poor laws. So we tried to – each time the bill would come up, the three times, we would offer things that would help close those loopholes and they would be rejected flat out; wouldn’t even get a single vote from those who were opposing it. They rejected any changes to their agreement, this carefully crafted, balanced agreement they said. It could never be changed. It had to be passed exactly like they presented it, if you remember that.


MR. SESSIONS: And you know, we were able to see it didn’t pass. But, boy, it was a battle.

And you know, Mark, the power of the forces that are out there working for massive immigration into America. You’ve got the far left, La Raza groups, the Democratic leftists and progressives who believe in open borders. And then you’ve got libertarian business types, big-business types who benefit from cheap labor in massive amounts who will sell a few more Coca-Colas or something if there’s more people here. They don’t really focus on what the interest of America is, how it will impact jobs for Americans and wages.

So that’s the kind of thing that people don’t quite realize, the power of these forces. You remember they spent $1.4 billion hiring almost every lobbyist in Washington to try to shove this thing through the last time, and it was by the skin of our teeth that we stopped it. And now that President Trump has come along, now we have a chance to get it done right.

MR. KRIKORIAN: And as you mentioned, this is a – this was then and is now kind of an odd-bedfellows coalition. I mean, you literally have radical leftists and Chamber of Commerce and big-business lobbyists literally sitting down together in the conference room, plotting out strategy. So this is very different from, say, the abortion debate or taxes or anything else, where pretty much the masters of the universe, as you put it, of all kinds – big business, big media, big labor, big philanthropy, big religion, big government – they’re all on the same side. And you know, honestly, it was almost you against – it was sort of David versus Goliath, except you had more than the three smooth stones; you had the entire – you had basically much of the American public behind you and were able to stop it in the Senate the first time when Bush tried it. They got it through when Obama was there – they got it through the Senate – but you’d bloodied it so much that it never made it into the House. So this idea of a correlation of these forces, and you know, it really takes one person standing up and saying no to stop it.

So I wanted to move to – go ahead.

MR. SESSIONS: Could I say one thing? One of the arguments I made I enjoyed making in twisting their tails a little bit was the idea that who – when they had these meetings in the room and they reached this carefully balanced agreement, who was in the room?


MR. SESSIONS: Was it the Chamber of Commerce and the La Razas and the ACLUs and the Democrats and President Obama? Who was in the room? The American people weren’t in the room. Another group that weren’t in the room is the Border Patrol and ICE officers. Nobody involved in law enforcement was in this – in that discussion. So this was a bogus agreement that they tried to ram through using huge amounts of money and political influence and insider pressure that almost succeeded this last time, but we were able to stop it. And now we have an opportunity to do a lot better.

MR. KRIKORIAN: So moving to present day, you about a week and a half ago issued a statement calling – the first person, I think, in public life, at least recently – calling for a moratorium on employment-based immigration because of this pandemic or the economic problems caused by the pandemic. A few days later the president tweeted and then issued a proclamation that did some of those things. And so my first question is, was the president’s proclamation about limiting – stopping certain immigration categories, was that what you expected? What was your reaction to it?

MR. SESSIONS: Well, we wanted to start the discussion and put the issue out before the American people to raise it in its insights to them because it’s such a critical issue. The president did make a strong statement. I think the order is a beginning, a first step. He indicated and they’re indicating that more orders and regulations might be issued as time goes by. I think that will clearly be necessary because we’re not there yet.

This is the issue: American – immigration should serve American interest. It is not in the interest of America to bring in 1.4 million people just to take jobs – just to take jobs in the American economy – when we just laid off another 4 million last week. We now have 27 million unemployed. Unemployment rate I think is 17 percent while a few weeks ago it was 3 ½ percent. So the last thing we need to be doing is denying Americans the opportunity to take one of the few jobs that might be out there.

Mark, think about this. The college graduates last year and high-school graduates, what were their job prospects in that booming economy? And imagine today. You know, a huge chunk of these jobs are white-collar jobs. The biggest number of them are white-collar jobs, and those jobs are jobs that a lot of kids out of high school or junior college or a four-year degree will take and have to take because there’s nothing else out there. And so to do this and to bring in these large numbers is detrimental to the interest of our citizens who are unemployed and will be on welfare if we don’t find them jobs soon.

MR. KRIKORIAN: And I think that resonates clearly with much of the public. What I wanted to maybe tease out a little bit is, do you have any – what would you like to see in any subsequent presidential proclamation? Because the president in his measure of last week said that Homeland Security and Labor Department were looking into and making – going to make recommendations for changes in a possible subsequent sort of follow-on proclamation focused on these guest-worker programs – “nonimmigrant programs” is what they’re technically called. A lot of people, when they hear “nonimmigrant,” they think, you know, you and me; we’re not immigrants. But “nonimmigrant” in the law means someone on a temporary visa. And so I was just wondering, any – you know, what temporary visa programs should the president be halting? I have a bunch of ideas of my own. I was just wondering if you had any specific thoughts on that.

MR. SESSIONS: Well, you know, everything should be looked at carefully. I would say the H-1B visas, the L-1 visas, some of those are really critical. So we admit, like, 1.4 million each year just to take jobs. They’re not here to become a citizen yet. They can apply, but they’re not here for that. They come to take a job in this economy. We don’t have any jobs. We don’t have any jobs.


MR. SESSIONS: We don’t have any jobs. We should not be bringing people in to take jobs when we don’t have any.

But it’s interesting to me, almost stunning, to see the intensity which this business and left-wing immigration groups are resisting this idea. I mean, why in the world would it not be in the national interest to pause this flow of labor, this flow of job takers, and make sure our young kids who graduated from college, junior college, high school, older people who have been laid off who would take another job – I mean, this is a crisis in our economy.

And if they don’t get the job and it goes to somebody from abroad, what happens to the American? Are they going to be on food stamps? Are they going to be on Medicaid? Will they continue to receive this emergency relief from the federal government? This is unthinkable. Everyone we can get to productive employment, to pay taxes to the government instead of drawing benefits from the government, is the way we should be working. And it’s going to be a tough time.

I don’t know if the unemployment will go up much more or not, but it could. Some predict it as high as 20 percent. The secretary of treasury did. So I think we’ve got a crisis on our hands and we need to make tough decisions right now. And the choice is between giving a job to an American or giving a job to somebody who applied to come here from abroad. It’s no choice at all to me.

MR. KRIKORIAN: And along those same lines, what the president’s proclamation did and I think what they’re looking at – what you were talking about – is people coming in now to take jobs. And that’s, obviously – I mean, I don’t even see why there’s an argument there. But there’s also an issue of people who are here but on some kind of temporary visa, specifically something called the Optional Practical Training program, OPT. And it sounds wonky, but it actually relates to – you were talking about people graduating from college.

Next month, a whole bunch of American kids are going to be graduating from college as well as a bunch of foreign students. And there’s this program, OPT for short, that lets them stay, pretending to be students. They stay on student visas, but they’re actually – it’s just a work visa. They’re staying. And it seems to me there’s an opportunity there for people who are already here but not as residents – obviously, people who have green cards are permanent residents. They don’t have to go anywhere. They’re now part of our society. But people who are foreign students, it seems to me it’s perfectly appropriate for us to say: Things have changed. You finished your degree. It’s time for you to go home. We’re not going to let you stay.

And that program in particular is just made up anyway. It doesn’t even exist in the law. The president could get rid of it tomorrow.

MR. SESSIONS: Well, thank you. That’s a very good example. This whole idea that somehow people have entitlements and rights – the law doesn’t give them the right to graduate from college here and demand entry here. Some people have proposed that. It’s come nowhere close to passing, to my knowledge. And so there we are.

So many different examples of situations in which people are up for extension. Maybe they came for three years and they want to be extended. They were never guaranteed more than three years or whatever their length of visa was. They’re not guaranteed the right to re-up and stay another three years if there’s no jobs in the economy. They’re here to take – because presumably they were needed to fill jobs that weren’t being filled. But when that’s no longer the case, they are not entitled to just demand to be able to stay. And we need to be realistic about that, summon up our simple understanding of law and what a visa means and how long it exists, and you don’t get to extend it if you don’t – if it’s not in the national interest to do so.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Along those same lines, Senator Cotton and some others have been talking about concerns about our supply chain for medical products and pharmaceuticals from China, that it’s a vulnerability that we depend on that. Is there an issue of a vulnerability of a labor supply chain, for instance in something like agriculture? Because the farmers are telling us they cannot feed our people without this ongoing, constant flow of workers from especially Mexico, foreign farmworkers. Is that a priority? And if you get to the Senate, is that – will that be on your list of things to address so that we don’t have that strategic vulnerability of having to rely on bringing in foreign workers, even with 20 percent unemployment, in order to pick tomatoes and cucumbers?

MR. SESSIONS: Well, first I would say only about 15 percent of all of these 1.4 million people that come here to take jobs are agricultural workers. A lot of people think they’re all, that’s why our whole agriculture industry is dependent on it. So my view is – and concern, really – is that we are getting so much better with mechanization, the ability to produce more crops with less people, we should create a system that fills certain niches. I’m comfortable with doing that, but we have to know precisely what we’re doing.

For example, some crops and problems for agriculture exist only two or three months a year, and it’s hard to get an American citizen to go out and take a three-month job with no health care and guaranteed future employment. It’s difficult. Right now, we got a lot of healthy high-school graduates and others who probably would be willing to go out on the farm and do some real work for a change. It would be good for them. I worked construction two years out in the hot Alabama sun as a – in the summers, so I know there’s nothing wrong with hard work. But I just would say we can accommodate to some reality, but they should come for a limited period of time and return. And that has worked in the past.

So I would just say to you, you’re right. We can continue to improve our agricultural productivity without massive increases in farmworkers. And I think right now there will be a better chance picking up people who could fill a lot of those jobs than we had when the economy was in a booming period. So we certainly should be cautious right now.

MR. KRIKORIAN: You brought up the issue of what’s going to happen to American workers who are unemployed. If we bring in foreign workers, well, they’re just going to end up on – using welfare. And it’s not even a moral critique; it’s like, well, we’ve just given all the jobs away to somebody else. There apparently was concern – or at least this is an issue that’s been raised by some of these lobbying groups – saying that their clients have to have these foreign workers, whether it’s in forestry or landscaping or making beds or whatever it is, because Americans are getting paid more on welfare, and that they’re just not going to want to work because the government’s paying them not to work, in effect. So is there a role for reforming our welfare system in order to make sure people actually – I mean, obviously, people want to work; it’s just – I mean, that’s almost kind of a moral issue. But if it’s – if you’re going to take a big pay cut taking a job, you know, some people just aren’t going to do that. So is there a role for welfare reform in making sure that we keep more of our people employed?

MR. SESSIONS: Oh, absolutely. And I think the argument that some of those groups were making is pretty weak, really. Already the law says that, basically, that people, before you can get certain welfare programs, are required to have sought employment. What has not happened is it hasn’t been effectively enforced.

In Alabama I met a lady. She said, they don’t like me. In a restaurant she told me, they don’t like me because I actually make them take a job if there’s one; a lot of my colleagues don’t here in my office, you know? And so that’s the problem we’ve got. We need to be able to tell people we cannot give you something for nothing when you have an opportunity to take care of yourself. Welfare is to help people who are in need. And by taking jobs that they might otherwise take, then I think we’ve hurt them and their chances.

And like, again, a lot of these jobs are permanent jobs, long-term jobs. They’re not three months picking tomatoes somewhere. And they’re good jobs, the kind of jobs that Americans are taking by the millions all the time, and have been, and wages probably should go up for those jobs. You know, we went 20 years, Mark, without wages going up, adjusted for inflation. And a huge factor – and you and your guys and Steve Camarota and all have studied, Dr. Borjas, and used those databases that are out there to prove that if you bring in too much labor from abroad, wages go down. You flood the market, it will not go up. You bring in too much cotton, price of cotton falls. You bring in too much labor, the price of labor falls. There’s just no doubt about this. There’s no need to argue about it.

But our businesses like low-cost labor. That’s what they like. And they can deny it till the cows come home, but their interest in profiting for their company and their stockholders is get the most productivity at the least cost. That’s what they try to do. And it’s us – politicians, government leaders – who are defending the American people. We can’t expect the CEOs to defend them, for heaven’s sakes. It’s us. And we got too many members of Congress been sitting on their duffs, too many of them taking money and hearing this song and dance that we got to have millions and millions of people coming in here or the country is going to sink into the ocean. That is absurd, and it’s time to be challenged.

If I’m in the Senate they’re going to hear from me as they have in the past, but even more so. We are not going to sit there and let these masters of the universe dictate public policy that savages the wages and job security of millions of Americans who serve our country, fight our wars, and pay our taxes.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Before I change tack a little bit, a lot of the – a lot of podcasts have a – have a promotional spot in the middle, so I wanted to have a little promotional spot for you and for us. CIS is online, We’re a think tank on the immigration issue. We do have a button where if you’re – if you have nothing to do with some of the money in your bank account, you can direct some of it tax-free to us.

And I wanted you go give a little blurb for yourself, Senator. The Center has nothing to do with electoral politics, but you know, you can say what you want, and then I had some other questions after that. So where can people find you, Senator?

MR. SESSIONS:, and they can reach me that way. And I would appreciate hearing from them. I believe at this point in history I have had the opportunity to get a particularly valuable insight into the forces and laws and congressional politics of immigration, and I learned a lot, Mark, as attorney general. We backed every way possible to use the office of the Department of Justice to prosecute illegality and to try to support our Homeland Security colleagues at Border Patrol and ICE officers. I was pleased that they supported me recently, the ICE officers, and said I was the number-one supporters of ICE officers and their mission in all of Congress when I was in the Senate. I took that as quite a compliment.

But I’ve learned a lot about it, and I think right now we have a window of opportunity. And the American people need to know your good listeners and your supporters at CIS are fabulous, and we have this window of opportunity. We’ve got a president who’s willing to support us. We know that things now, after all these battles, what it takes to end illegality and promote an immigration flow that serves the national interest. And so if we will just act on it, we can get something done.

Now, we got Republicans that aren’t charged up about it. You’ve seen it. I’ve seen it. I’ve gone head to head with them. They don’t get it completely. But if the American people speak, as they have in the past, we’ve moved public opinion and we’ve moved Congress. So it’s time for us to take that opportunity right now, battle this out. I think I’m ready to do that and can contribute. We got some great new voices. You mentioned Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and others that are out there, new voices I think will be effective in this battle. And we can make a difference, and we need to get it done now.

MR. KRIKORIAN: So I wanted to ask about something that’s going to be in the news – should be in the news soon, and that’s DACA. This is the amnesty – it’s sort of a limited amnesty – for illegal immigrants who came before they turned 16. The issue is before the Supreme Court. And in a sense, you, when you were attorney general, got the ball rolling on this. The president, when he was running for office, said on day one he would end DACA, and I was kind of a squeaky wheel asking: Well, it’s day one, and what’s going on? But eventually – it took about eight months or something – you issued a memo saying that DACA was unlawful, that Obama had acted unlawfully. That led to the DACA program being suspended and then there were lawsuits, et cetera. The Supreme Court’s supposed to decide soon – maybe as soon as this week; probably not for a little while yet, but soon. What should we be doing about DACA itself, and that when the Supreme Court – and I’m almost certain it will – uphold the president’s ability to end it, what then?

MR. SESSIONS: Well, I strongly believe the president will – they will uphold it. We fought for that and litigated it, and we actually won on the DAPA ,the parents deal, in the Fifth Circuit, and I think the Supreme Court will put a stake in the heart of this DACA. It’s just not lawful. The president – you remember President Obama said he couldn’t do it – repeatedly, explicitly could not do it – and then soon as the bill failed, or before I guess we came up with it, he issued this order. And it’s, to my view, not lawful, and it would be a great, great victory in the Supreme Court soon. I believe we will have that. That would give momentum to really challenging some of the other extreme ideas that have been floating out there.

MR. KRIKORIAN: So if you – well, let me ask this. On the campaign trail – and, obviously, it’s a virtual campaign trail now, presumably through radio interviews and what have you, since you can’t go and press the flesh and kiss the babies – are you hearing – are people asking about immigration issues and border issues and what have you? Or is – you know, are people making the connection between the economic problems we’re facing because of the virus and everything and immigration issues, or is it something you don’t hear that much about?

MR. SESSIONS: I think this idea of bringing in foreign workers to take jobs in this economy where we just laid off 27 million people who have lost their jobs is – that is resonating, and it’s allowed us to be able to ask people to remember we need to fix this thing. You need to control your border. You need to be able to say who gets to come and what skills they have and what excuses or needs or justifications they have to come. That is back on the agenda. I think we should continue to talk about it.

We need to complete the wall. That will be a big asset. The president’s ability during this disaster to reduce the flow into our country has been amazingly successful. They say about, what, 2,500 may be arrested this month, and last year this same month it was 132,000 arrested coming in illegally across the border?

So if you can stop people, as the president wants – and he gets frustrated about this – he wants – and the policy of the United States should be if we catch you at the border, you go back. You don’t get to come into the country, have to be held in a jail, have to be given some sort of hearing, and then we don’t have room for you so we let them go on bail and ask them to come back for the hearing. Whole bunches don’t come back. This is what they call catch and release. And then the ones that do come back, Mark, you know what happens. This is what happens. The judge says 85 percent of the time you’re not justified in your claim of asylum or whatever; you are – have to return to your country. You’re released on bail. Come back so you can be deported next month or three months from now. Well, of course they don’t come back. They had a free shot at permanent residence. If they lose it, they still get released on bail. It’s ridiculous.

And so Congress needs to fund the money needed to detain people. We need to continue – we’ve doubled the number of immigration judges. I did that. That was part of the Department of Justice responsibility. We’ve doubled that and we can give more hearings now, faster. But we’re still at these huge numbers behind the curve. So I think we’re in a position if we get some legislative changes, loopholes fixed, that kind of thing, we can end this problem. We can make massive improvement. A lot of Americans, on the other hand, have just sort of thought maybe nothing can ever be done – you know, we can never get this done. That’s not true. We can do it if we all work together.

MR. KRIKORIAN: So this is a question about what your priorities would be if you do get to the Senate, because you have this runoff for the nomination that’s coming up in July and then there’s the election in November. Now, if you prevail and make it all the way through, if the president gets reelected, given the history between you two – which we’re not going to dwell on, but everybody sort of knows what it’s about – do you think you’ll be able to work successfully with the administration in moving the ball forward according to – in other words, in promoting the president’s agenda?

MR. SESSIONS: Well, yes, because, you know, that’s why I endorsed him. He was so clear and so firm on fixing immigration. And I’ve been fighting for this, as you know, for years. I’m thinking: We’ve got a man that can get elected president who will actually do something, get this done.

Same on trade. I had become dubious about our trading policies over the years, and more and more hostile to that, and fought the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Obama trade deal, and he was strong on that.

And so those are the kind of issues that are going to be defining to his presidency. I don’t think he’ll have a stronger, more effective voice than I on those and other issues, too. That’s why I supported him. And I believe we can work together, and I will continue to because I want him to be successful. I want him to be reelected. I wanted him to be elected the first time. I worked harder than any other member of Congress. I was the most prominent member throughout Congress in supporting his agenda. So there we’ll have this opportunity, and I expect to be a real asset to his administration.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Well, thank you, Senator. I still have to call you senator because I don’t think you can call people general if you’re not a general, and I’m not comfortable just calling you Jeff, Senator. So hopefully it will be an accurate title come January 3rd. I really appreciate the time you’ve spent with us.

And any last words for people? You can say anything you want, including your website, because I’m going to say our website at the end. (Laughs.)

MR. SESSIONS: All right. It’s, and we’d love to hear from you.

Secondly, I do want to say that you and CIS have been tremendous allies. Time and again – and this is a fact – I called your team and said, how many are involved in this program, what do you know about that, what’s the economic data show about this kind of policy or that kind of policy. You’re one of the top groups, maybe the top group in the country in terms of being able to actually help a congressman or a senator who’s engaged in the fight, and I appreciate that very much. It was invaluable.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, and I appreciate your time. Thanks for the kind words and for taking the time out for this. We’ll have more of these Immigration Newsmaker talks coming up and they’re all going to be online. This conversation as well as the past ones and the future ones will be online at Thanks very much and hope to see you next time.

MR. SESSIONS: Thank you.