The Washington Post published a story on Friday that details Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s remaking of the Justice Department in his own nativist image. As the piece details, Sessions takes an anachronistic attitude to crime and punishment, following the lead of his frozen-in-the-1980s boss. He has directed federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible punishment for low-level crimes, an approach that has fallen out of favor almost everywhere. He has backed the federal government out of oversight agreements with local police departments, to the dismay of even conservatives hungry for reform. He likes to scare Americans by hyping up a violent crime wave that doesn’t exist.
But immigration is what really gets Sessions up in the morning. His hard-line views on the subject, which landed him on the fringe during his tenure as an Alabama senator, have become the animating force of the Trump coalition. It was Sessions who announced that the Trump administration was rolling back the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. As the Post points out, Sessions isn’t just in favor of cracking down on illegal immigration; he wants to crack down on legal immigration. As recently as 2015, he endorsed the racist anti-Asian immigration statutes put in place by the federal government between the 1920s and 1960s.
One anecdote from the article perfectly encapsulates the attorney general’s blinkered attitude:
In meetings with top Justice Department officials about terrorist suspects, Sessions often has a particular question: Where is the person from? When officials tell him a suspect was born and lives in the United States, he typically has a follow-up: To what country does his family trace its lineage?
While there are reasons to want to know that information, some officials familiar with the inquiries said the questions struck them as revealing that Sessions harbors an innate suspicion about people from certain ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement, “The Attorney General asks lots of relevant questions in these classified briefings.”
It’s not absurd to want to learn basic facts about a suspect’s background. Sessions’s query, though, sticks out because of its inevitability. When presented with evidence that a suspect who was born and raised in this country has committed a terrorist act, Sessions immediately turns to the nefarious outside (read: nonwhite) world to explain away the roots of the problem.
Most of Sessions’s actions at the Department of Justice have made it clear that he puts crimes committed by immigrants — like the gang MS-13 — into a special category that is especially threatening to the fabric of society. (This is the “American carnage” that President Trump spoke of so darkly in his inauguration speech.) To Sessions, these crimes are doubly offensive: They shatter his cherished vision of “law and order,” and they were committed by people who, in his view, shouldn’t be here in the first place.
The problem is that a man who believes that recent immigrants are more prone to violence than longtime citizens will tend to look for evidence where he expects to find it. And, as we’ve seen in the rest of the Trump administration, that sort of confirmation bias can have serious consequences.
To his credit, Sessions has seemed serious about at least one group of homegrown extremists: the white nationalists whose rally led to the death of Heather Heyer in August. That prosecution aside, though, his deep-seated suspicion of foreigners of any stripe will continue to manifest in irrational and unfair public policy.