Jeff Sessions's Fear of Muslim Immigrants

The Alabama senator and attorney general-nominee has a record of public statements portraying Muslim immigrants in menacing terms.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

One of the first things Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions promised the Senate Judiciary Committee was independence.

Donald Trump ran on a vision of “law and order” that included violence against protesters at his rallies, the promised incarceration of his political opponent, and a pledge to ban adherents of an entire religious faith from the country. At his confirmation hearing, Sessions sought to reassure his colleagues that, despite the then-president-elect’s bluster, the Alabama senator would preserve the rule of law and the traditional independence of the Justice Department from the man who nominated him, if need be.

“You simply have to help the president do things that he might desire in a lawful way and have to be able to say no, both for the country, for the legal system and for the president, to avoid situations that are not acceptable,” Sessions told the committee on January 10. “I understand that duty.”

On January 30, the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, concluded that she faced such a situation, telling Department of Justice attorneys not to defend a controversial executive order banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Trump dismissed her from her post.

That order, however, appears consistent with Sessions’s long record of public statements on Muslim immigration and his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sessions was among the first to defend Trump’s proposals to ban Muslims from the country, and has long portrayed Muslim immigrants to the United States as posing a particular threat. He has, moreover, issued a series of releases and public statements implying that the overall level of Muslim immigration to the United States, and not just the views of particular immigrants, should be a matter of public concern.

Asked during his January 10 confirmation hearing about his opposition to a 2015 amendment stating that “the United States must not bar individuals from entering into the United States based on their religion,” a measure Sessions called an “unprecedented” effort to ensure “these so-called ‘immigrants’ rights’ must be supreme to the rights of sovereign nations to determine who can and cannot enter their borders,” Sessions insisted he bore Muslims as a whole no ill will.

“I have no belief and do not support the idea that Muslims, as a religious group, should be denied admission to the United States. We have great Muslim citizens who've contributed in so many different ways,” Sessions said. But asked about Trump’s campaign proposal to bar Muslims from the United States, Sessions, foreshadowing both the executive order that would come days later, and the legal defenses of it that would be deployed in court, responded that he thought Trump believed “the focus should be on individuals coming from countries that have history of terrorism.”

Sessions previously offered unqualified praise for a 1924 immigration law that was designed to restrict immigration of nonwhites and Southern and Eastern Europeans, particularly Jews. Like the Trump administration’s travel ban, it was defined in geographical terms, but its authors made no secret of which immigrants were being targeted. The goal of that law, known as the Johnson-Reed Act, was to maintain the ethnic and religious composition of the United States so that those considered white protestants would remain the majority.

Sessions’s views on immigration may already be shaping administration policy, even prior to his confirmation. Trump’s top White House adviser, Stephen Bannon, has already identified Sessions as “the clearinghouse for policy and philosophy” in the Trump administration. Stephen Miller, a longtime Sessions aide, is now a key policy hand in the Trump White House. On a background briefing with reporters, a Trump adviser implied that the administration’s intent was to prevent the development of a Muslim community in the United States resembling those of Europe, viewing that as a national security threat in itself. “The situation that exists today in parts of France, in parts of Germany, in Belgium, etc, is not a situation we want replicated inside the United States,” the adviser said, adding that it would lead to “the kind of large and permanent domestic terror threat that becomes multidimensional and multigenerational and becomes sort of a permanent feature.”

Sessions himself, as chair of the Senate’s subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, has repeatedly presented Muslim immigration to the United States in menacing terms.

In September 2015, in a press release and chart describing Middle Eastern migration to Latin America and the U.S., Sessions’s office wrote that “about 1 in 40 of all migrants living in the U.S. today are from the Middle East or North Africa; however, that population has been rapidly growing. More than 1 in 10 of the annual permanent migrants resettled in the U.S. is a Muslim migrant.”

That same month, criticizing the Obama administration’s plan to admit more Syrian refugees, Sessions’ office pointed out that “Since 9/11, we have permanently resettled approximately 1.5 million migrants from Muslim nations inside the U.S.,” a refrain repeated by his office several times over the next few years. None of these releases specified why the religious beliefs of immigrants should be of particular concern.

In November of 2015, again attacking the Obama administration’s plan to admit Syrian refugees, Sessions made clear that his concerns were not limited to Syrian immigrants, tying them to concern that Muslim immigrants were particularly susceptible to radicalization.

“Each year, the U.S. permanently resettles more than 100,000 Muslim migrants inside the United States. In just the last year, refugees and migrants allowed into America from Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Ghana, Kuwait and Bangladesh have been implicated in terrorism,” Sessions said. “And, as we have seen, the U.S.-born children of migrants are also at risk for radicalization.”

In November 2015, Sessions went even further––foreshadowing the Trump administration’s own talking points defending the ban––stating that he opposed resettling Syrian refugees in the United States because “it is an unpleasant but unavoidable fact that bringing in a large unassimilated flow of migrants from the Muslim world creates the conditions possible for radicalization and extremism to take hold.”

“Senator Sessions is one of the most, if not, the most, anti-immigrant senator in the U.S. Senate,” argued Farhana Khera, director of the civil-rights group Muslim Advocates. “He has a long record of demonizing non-white immigrants, especially Muslim and Latino immigrants.”

In September 2016, Sessions had an exchange with Simon Henshaw, the state department official in charge of its refugee program, who was testifying about the Obama administration’s approach to the Syrian refugee problem. Sessions asked Henshaw about “honor killings,” defined by the human rights group Amnesty International as “acts of violence against wives, sisters, daughters and mothers to reclaim their family honor from real or suspected actions that are perceived to have compromised it.”

“We had 27 honor killings last year in the United States according to DOJ,” Sessions said, “do you ask if you adhere to the practice of honor killings for people who violate certain religious codes before admitting into the United States?”

Henshaw didn’t quite answer the question. “I'm not sure those honor killings took place among the resettled refugee community in the United States,” Henshaw said.

Simon Henshaw: I see that they're becoming good American citizens, members of the military, members of our police, member--people with U.S. American values, that's what I see when I visit refugee populations in the U.S.

Jeff Sessions: Well, if they are illiterate in their home country they're not likely to be a police officer the next week in the United States, are they? And with regard to honor killings, you have evidence that 27 people were killed in the United States for honor killings according to a DOJ report.

Henshaw: I have no evidence that there were any honor killings among the refugee population resettled in the U.S., sir.

Sessions: Well, it's from the same cultural background I would say.

If Sessions has been vocal about his concern over Muslim immigration, he has been equally clear about his preference for non-Muslim immigrants. In April 2016, Sessions’s office put out a chart and press release noting that the “U.S. admits more than double the number from immigrants from Muslim nations than from the European Union,” warning that  “assuming no change in immigration policies, the U.S. can expect to grant green cards to another 680,000 migrants from Muslim-majority nations over the next five years.”

But this alarm over Muslim immigration contrasts with some stark statistics. According to Pew, the United States’s Muslim population is expected to rise to 2.1 percent by 2050, from 1 percent today. About 70 percent of the U.S. population identifies as Christian. Americans tend to vastly overestimate the size of the Muslim population, on average believing it is as high as 17 percent, which would make Muslim Americans a larger minority than black Americans.

Sessions has also sought to portray Muslim immigrants as a burden on the welfare state. Railing against the Obama administration’s plan to resettle Syrian refugees, Sessions repeatedly noted that “more than 90% of recent Mideast refugees draw food stamps and about 70% receive free healthcare and cash welfare.”

Those numbers reflect the fact that many refugees are fleeing war, persecution, and the annihilation of their homes.

“They come to the United States often with nothing, many of them have been in refugee camps for years,” said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute. “Even if they had been professionals or highly skilled, by the time they reach refugee status they’re likely destitute, so by the time they reach the United States they need assistance to survive for the first few weeks or months.”

Though refugees are more likely to remain poor than other U.S. residents, their public-benefit use declines relatively quickly. A study by MPI found that 42 percent of refugees used public benefits within five years of arrival, but that use went down to 16 percent after 20 years of residency. Prior to the war in Syria, many Middle Eastern refugees tended to be better educated than other refugees––according to MPI, Iranian refugees are much more likely to be highly educated than native-born Americans, and refugees from Iraq are about as likely to have an advanced or bachelor’s degree as American citizens.

“It's deeply disturbing that Senator Sessions would single out Muslim refugees and somehow imply that they're incapable of holding jobs or becoming contributing members of society,” said Khera.

Sessions’s record of public statements makes clear that he has long presented Muslim immigration as posing a particular danger to the United States. As a member of the Trump administration, he would be among the most powerful officials, but certainly not the only one, to hold that view.