Commentary
By Jim Wallis 4-20-2017

While President Donald Trump has been stymied on many fronts — the legal challenges to his refugee ban, the defeat of the AHCA, and the complete lack so far of any legislative accomplishments — Jeff Sessions is firmly in place as the nation’s top law enforcement officer. And he has been busy.

While the nation has been distracted by Trump’s outlandish words, behavior, and many failures in his first 100 days, here is what Attorney General Sessions has been quietly up to. He has announced and pursued initiatives on a number of significant fronts thanks to the vast powers of our law enforcement apparatus. Charles Blow documented some of what Sessions has done in his New York Times column on Monday. Blow highlights four actions in particular:

  1. The Sessions Department of Justice dropped its objection to a Texas voter ID law that has now twice been found by judges to be discriminatory against minorities.
     
  2. The Justice Department has reversed a six-month-old Obama administration directive that was meant to steer the federal government away from using private prisons.
     
  3. Sessions has ordered a sweeping review of federal agreements with dozens of law enforcement agencies, which could lead to the weakening or abandonment of consent decrees (court-supervised legally binding agreements) with troubled police departments across the country. Sessions said just last Thursday that these consent decrees, which are designed to reform police departments that have routinely abused their powers, “can reduce the morale of police officers.” This emphasis on the needs and desires of police officers over and above the needs and well-being of the communities they protect and serve seems abundantly clear in both Sessions’ and Trump’s agenda.
     
  4. We also know that Sessions, along with one of his top new lieutenants Steven H. Cook, plans to significantly increase prosecutions of drug and gun crimes and pursue mandatory minimum sentences. They are said to be eager to return to the policies from the height of the “war on drugs” of the 80s and 90s, which of course are the very policies that have given us mass incarceration and the resultant political disenfranchisement disproportionately of people of color. This is not a coincidence.

On immigration, Sessions has been equally vigorous. As CNN reported late last week, Sessions went down to the U.S.-Mexico border and told border patrol agents, “This is a new era. This is the Trump era.” And this sentiment has very much reflected what the DOJ has done on Sessions’ watch. For example, he has proposed stepping up prosecutions of undocumented immigrants in various ways, “including more heavily targeting cases of identity theft and illegal reentry.” In order to deal with the fact that the federal immigration court system already has a backlog of 500,000 cases, Sessions wants to increase the number of immigration judges, and “bring judges to inmates while in prison on the front end to speed up removal (as opposed to waiting until they’ve completed their sentences).”

Sessions has also threatened cutting off law enforcement funding to sanctuary cities and presided over (along with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly) significantly stepped up enforcement actions on the part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE raids, like the one Sojourners reported across the street from a local church’s hypothermia shelter for homeless people, have happened across the country. In several cases, undocumented immigrants have been picked up by ICE inside courthouses, an action that Sessions and Kelly have directly defended as a counter to cities and states that have refused to hold undocumented immigrants in jail past their release dates to be transferred to federal custody.

This week, Secretary Kelly forcefully defended the crackdown Sessions and he are leading:

“If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines … For too long, the men and women of my department have been political pawns. My people have been discouraged from doing their jobs for nearly a decade, disabled by pointless bureaucracy and political meddling, and suffered disrespect and contempt by public officials who have no idea what it means to serve.’’

Here’s my translation for what he said: “If you’re not going to pass meaningful immigration reform, the laws on the books give us the right to round up and deport as many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country as we can, and that’s exactly what we intend to do.”

There is clear evidence that a crackdown on immigration is already in progress. A memo Sessions issued Tuesday calls for federal attorneys to consider prosecution of anyone who harbors or transports immigrants. That policy in particular could put the Department of Justice on a collision course with religious liberty in the United States, if traditional Christian ministry to immigrants is now deemed worthy of prosecution.

As for the claim that the Trump administration only wants to deport “bad hombres” as the president put it — in other words, those already convicted of serious crimes — we have instead seen, according to a recent analysis, that ICE arrests of non-criminals have doubled under Trump, even as border arrests have declined sharply. Frank Sharry, head of the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice Education Fund put it this way:

"Donald Trump talks about going after the 'bad hombres.' But the evidence and stories from across the country tell a very different story. This administration is purposefully targeting formerly 'low priority' undocumented immigrants who are deeply rooted in American families and American communities."

It’s also critically important to recognize that Attorney General Sessions, with allies in the Trump White House and members of Congress like Rep. Steven King (R-Iowa), is not content to just reduce illegal immigration, but would like to roll back legal immigration as well. Legislation introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in February would cut the annual issuance of green cards in half. Cotton has been working on this legislation several longtime anti-immigration figures in the administration, including Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, and Julie Kirchner. Kirchner is the former executive director of the far-right immigration restrictionist group Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. She’s now a special political adviser in U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The voices for restricting ALL immigration, legal and otherwise, are as strong in this administration as they’ve been at any time in the last 35 years, according to conservative commentator Linda Chavez.

The racialized enforcement of our nation’s criminal justice system is now in force in the federal government under the leadership of attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions and the President of the United States, Donald Trump. And that same administration, with allies in the United States Congress, is committed to eventually deporting as many as they can of millions of undocumented immigrants, no matter how many millions of families they break up in the process.

The attorney general of the United States is acting to set back racial progress in America, and his policies will put American citizens of color in even more racial jeopardy. Sessions is acting as a white American, on behalf of white Americans, under the direction of a white nationalist administration, and against the goal of a more equitable multicultural American future. These are not just political issues; they are matters of faith and need to be named so by the genuine leadership of faith communities in America.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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