The Anti-Immigration Southern Conservative Trump Is Bringing into His Cabinet

America doesn't know much about Jeff Sessions yet, but the hard-right senator is beloved in Alabama for his unwavering conservatism.

by Meredith Hoffman
21 November 2016, 12:00am

Jeff Sessions speaks at a Trump rally in October. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions was officially nominated to be Donald Trump's attorney general, the country's top law enforcement post. This is clearly a reward for the conservative legislator's unwavering loyalty: Sessions was the first senator to formally support Trump. In February, he announced at a rally that "we are in a movement that must not fade away."

"We need to make America great again," Sessions said before thousands of cheering supporters in Madison, Alabama. "This is a campaign, this is a movement. The American people are not happy with their government."

"It is an honor to nominate US Senator Jeff Sessions to serve as Attorney General of the United States," Trump said in a press statement Friday. "He is a world-class legal mind and considered a truly great Attorney General and US Attorney in the state of Alabama. Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him."

But not many people outside his home state know much about Sessions. He's served in the Senate for 20 years, but never before has he reached this level of national prominence. So what can America expect from him after his expected confirmation by the Senate as AG?

Civil rights advocates paint a bleak picture of a former US attorney and legislator known for anti-immigrant sentiment and resistance to the Civil Rights movement; he was once blocked from getting a federal judgeship over a controversy that involved his past statements about how the the ACLU and NAACP "un-American" and "communist-inspired." His friends and supporters, however, insist that he's fair to all.

Sessions's Alabama roots run deep. He was born in Selma in 1946, and grew up in Hybart, a "little bitty community" on the edge of the Black Belt—the part of the state that was at the heart of the antebellum cotton industry—according to Hardy Jackson, a history professor at Jackson State University who writes about Alabama history.

"His record is the record of a classic Southern conservative, and I've never known him to be otherwise," Jackson told me. "On the edge of the Black Belt was where people with plantations had homes. He was part of the plantation gentry."

Sessions attended the Methodist school Huntingdon College for his undergraduate degree and then went on to law school at the University of Alabama. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed him US Attorney in Mobile. His most famous case from that period was his prosecution of three black civil rights workers for voter fraud who became known as the Marion Three (they were quickly acquitted of the charges against them). Meanwhile, he did seemingly little to protect the rights of black residents.

"I never felt the US Attorney's office under Sessions was available to help African Americans in pursuit of their civil rights or employment issues," one longtime civil rights attorney who was practicing in Mobile at the time told me. (He requested he remain anonymous.) "All of the traditional civil rights and voting rights were being fought at that time."

In 1986, Reagan nominated Sessions to be a federal district court judge, but the Senate eventually rejected the appointment after the confirmation hearings became mired in controversy—he was accused of making racially insensitive remarks, telling a white civil rights lawyer he was a "disgrace to his race," and joking about how he thought the Ku Klux Klan was OK until he found out some of them were pot smokers. He denied many allegations but admitted he thought the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was "a piece of intrusive legislation."

Gerry Hebert, a civil rights attorney who worked in Mobile at the time, testified that Sessions made such comments, and came out immediately to express his opposition to Sessions's AG appointment.

"He has repeatedly demonstrated racial insensitivity to black citizens of Alabama and this country through both his words and actions. He has never apologized for his racially charged comments during his last tenure at the Department of Justice," Hebert said in an emailed statement. "I believe that Sessions represents a threat to voting rights for all minorities. It is frightening to think that Sessions will run the U.S Department of Justice and have the opportunity to roll back voting rights through voter suppression in communities that have long struggled for equality."

But all that criticism didn't hurt Sessions's popularity in Alabama—he was elected state Attorney General in 1994 and went to the Senate in 1997. He's the most beloved statewide public official by far, his conservatism matching that of his deep-red state, even if some residents still harbor hostility for him.

"Many people in Alabama were quite upset that so much was made of the remarks he made," recalled Jackson, referring to Sessions' comments about the NAACP.

The issue that brought Sessions into Trump's orbit was immigration—he opposes all forms of immigration reform, wants to decrease the number of visas granted to foreign workers, and aligns with Trump on mass deportations.

"For several years now he's been the leading anti-immigration voice in the US Senate since he served in opposition to what we call practical reforms, so it's certainly something we're concerned about," Beth Werlin, Executive Director of the American Immigration Council, told me. The attorney general has the authority to interpret which groups qualify for asylum and how strictly to prosecute undocumented immigrants, among other immigration issues.

Senator Sessions's office did not immediately return calls asking for comment. But one of the senator's best friends told me that accusations of his civil rights infringement are blown out of proportion.

"I have known and been a friend of Jeff for over 40 years and he has always been the same... a sincere person with class," Scott Hunter, a Mobile resident who played football at the University of Alabama, told me via text message. "He will do a great job for all Americans as their Attorney General... and I emphasize 'all' Americans."

But the organizations that will likely oppose Trump's administration for the next four years do not share that optimism.

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, warned that Sessions went beyond opposing immigration into aligning with "racist anti-immigrant groups." Cohen noted that Sessions had spoken to the Advisory Board of the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which the SPLC defines as a hate group for its anti-Latino rhetoric, and that the anti-Muslim group the Center for Security Policy recently given Sessions an award.

"These are groups that don't just simply oppose immigration. These are groups that vilify Latinos and Muslims," Cohen told me.

The ACLU also issued a warning about Sessions's appointment, which the Senate must now approve.

"His positions on LGBT rights, capital punishment, abortion rights, and presidential authority in times of war have been contested by the ACLU and other civil rights organizations," the group said in a statement. "In his confirmation hearings, senators, the media, and the American public should closely examine his stances on these key issues to ensure we can have confidence in his ability to uphold the Constitution and our laws on behalf of all Americans."

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