Donald Trump said so many contradictory things about immigration policy during the election—from calling for deporting all eleven-plus million illegal immigrants in the U.S. to mulling flip-flopping back to his pre-2012 support for amnesty—that it’s been hard for his opponents and supporters alike to know what he’ll actually try to do on the issue once in office. With the nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General (which has been confirmed by the Trump transition team), we may have our first clue.
Sessions is one of the leading immigration hawks in the Senate, where he led the opposition to the Gang of Eight bill. He would have been an unsurprising choice for DHS chief or as one of the next Administration’s leading surrogates on Capitol Hill (where he would have likely become the architect of a new immigration bill). What setting up Sessions as Attorney General suggests is that Trump will try to deal with immigration policy through more enhanced use of existing law.
With that in mind, it’s worth looking at an article Jessica Vaughn, the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, wrote recently for National Review:
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that is responsible for carrying out deportations in the interior, there are approximately 1.9 million deportable criminal aliens in the country. It is able to estimate this because, since 2012, ICE has been receiving the fingerprints of everyone who is arrested or booked into a jail, and because ICE has officers screening inmates in most major correctional systems (except some of the sanctuary cities, where they are denied access to inmates).
ICE’s estimate does not include all of the immigration fugitives who skipped out on their hearings; currently there are more than 940,000 aliens who have been ordered removed but are still here. Nor does it include all those who were kicked out of the country but returned; that figure is unknown. Nor does it include aliens who committed a crime but were never convicted (often because they jumped bail or were released by a sanctuary), or the many illegal-alien gang members who are on the streets in greater numbers, and who were formerly an arrest priority for ICE but are now largely left for local law enforcement to handle.
Come January 21, we can expect that all of these cases will again, appropriately, become a priority for enforcement.
Vaughn’s piece is worth reading in full, as she outlines various legal steps that a government committed to enforcement could take. Sessions likely is thinking along similar lines. The Alabama Senator and the CIS staff are both part of a circle of policy thinkers who’ve been considering restrictionist positions on both legal and illegal immigration during a time when most policy wonks both left and right favored some form of amnesty and increased legal flows. (Mark Krikorian, the CIS head, endorsed the Sessions nomination shortly after it was announced.)
There are parts of such an approach that will prove controversial. After the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act—which Bill Clinton signed into law during his tough-on-crime centrist phase—federal law has deemed certain misdemeanors felonies for the purposes of immigration enforcement. Expect to hear a lot in the news about families that could be torn apart over relatively minor charges; depending on how the next Administration decides to handle things, this could be so.
On the other hand, there will be parts of the approach that will prove popular. I imagine our political class will be in for something of a surprise by how warmly high-profile arrests and deportations of violent felons who are also illegal aliens—Vaughn mentions a fugitive wanted for murderer in Oklahoma as an example—will be greeted.
One way to think of this is that immigration is the original pen-and-phone issue: for some time, culminating in the Presidency of Barack Obama but by no means beginning there, the application of our immigration laws has differed significantly (and increasingly) from the way they are written. As the application of those laws lies (largely) within the purview of the executive branch, that will be open to change by a President Trump and an AG Sessions. A course correction or backlash (depending on who you’re talking to) that has been building up may now be coming.