Attorney General Jeff Sessions told senators Wednesday they could work with President Donald Trump to protect undocumented childhood immigrants from deportation as long as “amnesty” is coupled with efforts to reduce illegal immigration overall.
“The president has said he wants to work with Congress. He has a heart for young people,” Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a wide-ranging Justice Department oversight hearing.
But the nation’s top federal law enforcement official said no deal should be made without “a good improvement in the illegality that is going on.”
Sessions in early September announced Trump’s decision to begin winding down former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program has granted deportation relief and work permits to some 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children.
Trump gave Congress six months to find a legislative solution that would allow the so-called Dreamers, who have spent much of their lives in the country, to stay legally instead of being subject to possible deportation.
‘An opportunity now’
“There is an opportunity now,” said Sessions, a longtime immigration hawk who spent years in the Senate opposing efforts to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants. Like many Republicans, Sessions refers to efforts to grant legal status as “amnesty” for lawbreakers.
Consensus on how to find a resolution for DACA recipients has been elusive. Republican leaders are insisting that any path to legal status be paired with significant enhancements in border security. Trump’s desire to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is also complicating matters, and conservatives are calling for limits on legal immigration.
Sessions said Wednesday his personal views on granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants had not changed since he became attorney general in February.
“If they’re getting some sort of legal status, they should not get everything as someone” who immigrated to the United States legally, Sessions said.
But he acknowledged that Trump’s wishes, not his own, are paramount to the debate over a path to legal status: “The president has certainly left the door wide open and signaled he would like something like that.”
Senators Spend Time Bickering Over Time at Sessions Hearing
Sessions was circumspect when it came to questions about ending DACA. He declined to tell Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin whether he had contact with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton or other state officials who had threatened to sue Trump if he didn’t end the program prior to last month’s announcement.
“That kind of legal discussion, I believe, would be part of the work product of the AG’s office, and I cannot reveal it,” Sessions said.
Durbin has sponsored legislation with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, another member of the Judiciary Committee, that would provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers. As the minority whip, Durbin will play a key role in the Senate Democratic strategy on immigration.
He asked whether the decision to end the program had been reviewed by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which had concluded under the Obama administration that the program was lawful. That opinion is still on the DOJ website.
Sessions said the decision was reviewed by “a large number of experienced lawyers in the department” and questioned Durbin’s interpretation of the 2014 opinion, arguing it pertained only to individuals, not an entire section of the undocumented population.
“The so-called approval of DACA by OLC was based on the caveat or requirement that any action taken should be done on an individual basis,” he said. “DOJ can’t just wipe out whole sections of American law.”
Durbin and Sessions also clashed over the Justice Department’s efforts to block federal law enforcement grants for local “sanctuary” jurisdictions, including Chicago. Durbin said Trump and Sessions were scapegoating the city’s immigrant population for Chicago’s crime rate, and said money the city hopes to receive in Justice Department grants would be spent on combating gun violence.
But Sessions found a defender in Louisiana GOP Sen. John Kennedy, who noted that New Orleans is also in danger of losing federal funding. Kennedy apologized for a letter sent to Sessions by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu earlier this month blasting the “caustic, political rhetoric that seeks to make us fearful of others and scapegoat immigrants.”
Sessions also declined to answer questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, about Trump’s late summer pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of criminal contempt in July. A Washington Post report at the time said Trump asked Sessions to drop the charges last spring.
“I cannot comment on the private conversations I may have had with the president,” Sessions said.