As I report in Monday's Washington Post, the divide among Republicans over the issue of immigration is perhaps best understood by looking at Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who both say they want to revamp the nation's immigration system, but differ on how best to do so.
Sessions has spent most of June on the Senate floor critiquing the bipartisan immigration measure section-by-section, raising doubts about what the bill promises and working with other conservative senators to slow debate of the bill. His office declined to make time for a more formal interview, because, as one aide said, "We’re trying to focus on the substance of the bill rather than Senator Sessions personally." Instead, we spoke briefly just off the Senate floor.
What follows is an edited version of our interview:
Ed O'Keefe: How do you think the immigration debate on the floor is going right now?
Sessions: “I think more and more people are realizing that the bill doesn’t live up to the sponsors’ promises and I think to begin to ask ourselves couldn’t we get a better bill if we let the House lead in a step-by-step basis. I know they’re working on interior enforcement legislation that looks to me to be very effective. If you want the enforcement to occur, that’s the kind of legislation that you have to have. And so, this bill doesn’t have it and it doesn’t have it in every other area really that’s critical. Each area of the bill that is critical falls short.
“So I just say, what do you do? Some think we should just move the bill to conference and maybe something good will happen there. But I’d say the better position would be to say that the Senate didn’t pass the bill, we’ll take up the House bill and amend it.
What kind of feedback do you get from your Republican colleagues? I know there are many who side with you, but others who want to see this happen – those in the Gang of Eight and others on the fence. Has anyone told you to stop this?
“No, I’ve not been told to stop. Everybody in conference, including myself, would like to see good legislation passed and do it in a way that’s responsible and compassionate, but to take those clear steps necessary to have a lawful system in the future that we can be proud of.
“I think legislation is more than affirming a vision, that’s sort of what happened with Obamacare – they sold a vision and people didn’t know what was in the bill. You’re selling a vision that people like.
"We’re going to have the toughest enforcement ever, we’re going to have a legalization process of some kind, we’re going to do a lot of things that people would like to see. But when you read the bill, it doesn’t get there, which is the pattern here. And I’m really baffled why this Senate can’t be crystal clear that we want a system in the future that’s enforceable. It’s just a national scandal and creates great tension with the American people when we could do this and we don’t.
"And I would say one more thing about that: The border is closer with real commitment from the administration and some investment in fencing and a few more things, you could have a dramatic improvement at the border. But 40 percent of the illegality is visa overstays and with the entry-exit visa using biometrics as current law requires, you could end that. You could have a huge impact on the visa overstay program and it doesn’t cost a lot of money. None of this is impossible and the workplace, the e-Verify system, I’m very uneasy about why they would delay and change the process. You could have the e-Verify system up and running within weeks now as an existing system. But they replace it in a way that delays it and you never know if it’ll ever be completed. All of those things are within our grasp. They’re all doable.
"And then of course we have a very generous immigration flow today and we would keep that. But this bill dramatically increases the flow of immigration far more than most people realize. The result being I think that it does without question endanger job prospects and wages of middle-class Americans.
I’ve been reading through your floor statements and other things you’ve said and it’s clear that you're seeking a different solution, and to do it differently, than the "Gang of Eight." Some have said that you’ve toned down or modified your statements on immigration compared to the last time the Senate debated this issue. Do you feel that way? Is it perhaps because of the political sensitivities that didn’t exist six or seven years ago?
"Well we want everyone to know that this country is welcoming of immigrants, but we’re just beginning to fight on this and to point out the problems. I think this bill should be defeated, I do not believe it should pass in its present form, and frankly it looks like we’re unlikely to see any changes in it that would make it a bill that should be passed.
"So I think it’s really important for the American people to know that it’s flawed and I intend to do my best and then we’ll vote. I’m not twisting arms – I didn’t last time – I just talked about the issues and problems and individual senators will have to make up their own mind about how they vote. But I think that as they find out more about it, support will erode. Whether they’ll still have enough votes, who knows? You have the president behind it, you have the Democratic Congress behind it, you have a lot of well-known Republicans and four well-known Republicans in the Senate.
"But it’s not been supported, I don’t think, with the American people. They’ve heard a lot of promises, they’re running ads out there today that it’s the toughest thing ever and going to do these things, and it still hasn’t closed the deal.
What would you say to senators like Jeff Flake or Marco Rubio or Republicans who come from states with bigger Hispanic population that say we need this bill in order to hold our seats and help the party expand in the coming years?
“I think that every senator has an obligation to do what’s in the national interest. And it’s not in the national interest for millions of Hispanics who are working today – middle class, lower-income workers – who are going to be adversely impacted, too. We welcome somebody here, they come to America, implicitly we’re saying we’re going to create an environment where you have a chance to be successful. And if you create an environment that isn’t successful, isn’t that hurting minorities? Isn’t that hurting immigrants, isn’t it hurting Hispanics? I think it is. As well as African Americans and other people who are here.
"I think the right thing to do is say that we want a lawful system of immigration and this bill will do it. And it’s not unkind, there’s not anything wrong with wanting to create a system that works, that punishes those that come illegally and affirms those that come legally. In addition, we need to ask ourselves, how large can that flow be without damaging the immigrants who’ve already come to the country, without damaging American citizens who are looking for jobs.
"So I think that’s the way to be politically persuasive and we don’t need to be defensive about it. Just defend the legitimate, national interests of our country and the interests of the American people."
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