WASHINGTON >> When President Donald Trump scrapped a program benefiting young people who entered the U.S. illegally as children, he left the announcement to the member of his Cabinet who had railed against it the longest and loudest.
It was Attorney General Jeff Sessions, rather than Trump, who stood behind a podium today and told a bank of television cameras that the program that shielded more than 800,000 young immigrants from deportation was “an unconstitutional exercise of authority” that must be revoked.
“Simply put, if we are to further our goal of strengthening the constitutional order and the rule of law in America, the Department of Justice cannot defend this type of overreach,” Sessions said, reading from prepared remarks during a briefing at the Justice Department where he refused to take reporters’ questions.
Trump made a campaign promise to end protections for the young immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which benefits youths whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally as children or whose families overstayed visas. But as president, he has expressed sympathy for the participants, sometimes called “Dreamers,” and struggled with the decision. Trump notably chose not to be the face of today’s announcement. But Sessions, an immigration hardliner who had been urging the president to fulfill his campaign promise, seemed willing.
During last year’s presidential campaign, the two men bonded over their hawkish views on immigration, and Sessions became the first senator to endorse Trump. In taking to the podium himself, Sessions provided another reminder of his loyalty to Trump’s core agenda and to the president himself. It was a sign that tensions between the two are easing after a summer in which Trump publicly berated him in interviews and on social media, incensed over his decision to recuse himself from a probe into Russia’s meddling into the election.
As a senator, Sessions was a leading force against efforts to ease immigration restrictions. He relentlessly opposed comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, and fought against a 2010 bill that would have offered a path to citizenship to some young people living in the United States illegally.
“This bill would create an incentive for future illegality since Congress would be sending a message that we have effectively given up enforcement of our immigration laws and instead seek to reward those who enter the country illegally,” Sessions said of the bill at the time, warning that it would cost Americans jobs and “provide legal shelter for criminal aliens.”
Now at the head of the Justice Department, he has new power to shape America’s immigration policy. Sessions said the department had urged Trump to wind down the DACA program ahead of a threatened court challenge from Republican state officials. He told Trump he did not want the Justice Department to defend DACA in court and did not believe it could do so successfully.
Sessions made the announcement instead of Trump because “it was a legal decision, and that would fall to the attorney general,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
But it was clear Sessions’ opposition went beyond concern about a possible legal challenge. He called the Obama administration program an “open-ended circumvention of immigration laws” that had “contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences” and cost Americans jobs. DACA supporters reject those claims.
“We’ve been hearing this sort of stuff from Jeff Sessions for decades,” said Adam Luna, a spokesman for United We Dream, whose members protested outside the Justice Department today. “It’s just same old, same old boilerplate.”
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that pushes for strict immigration policies, had grown concerned when Trump did not immediately end DACA. But the organization that long saw an ally in Sessions was reassured by his involvement, Government Relations Director Rob Law said.
“Clearly his guidance and that of other key staffers has really continued turning the campaign promises into actual results,” he said.
Still, it’s unclear whether Sessions wanted a total and immediate end to the program or if he was satisfied by the administration’s compromise. Trump is giving Congress six months to come up with a legislative fix — “should it choose to,” Sessions said — before the government stops renewing permits for people already covered by the program.
“We firmly believe this is the responsible path,” he said.