It’s almost as if Jeff Sessions’ opposition to immigration reform isn’t about the poor at all

June 19, 2013

That CBO report showing that the Senate bill will boost the economy? It's not good enough for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). Even if it does help the economy, he says, "the benefit will go to the business owners." He worries that "the 21 million Americans who can’t find full-time work will have an ever harder time getting a job and supporting their families." Immigration, he warns, could be "the biggest setback for poor and middle-class Americans of any legislation Congress has considered in decades.”

Jeff Sessions, defender of the poor -- at least when immigration reform is around. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), defender of the poor -- at least when immigration reform is around. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

That's why Jeff Sessions opposes immigration reform, or at least why he says he opposes immigration reform. Because even if it's good for the economy and good for the rich, he doesn't think it's good for the poor.

But that's not why he opposes anything else. Sessions doesn't typically vote against bills because the benefits accrue to business owners or because they'll make life harder for Americans who can't find work. Quite the opposite, actually.

In February 2012, with the payroll tax cut about to expire and working families about to see a $1,000 tax increase, the Senate finally managed to push an extension past a filibuster. Thirteen Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa), voted yes. Sessions voted no.

Sessions also voted no on the American Jobs Act, which would have created jobs by investing in infrastructure repair and cutting taxes for workers and for businesses who hire new workers. He voted no, repeatedly, on efforts to extend long-term unemployment benefits for jobless workers. He voted no on the Buffet rule, which would have raised taxes on the rich in order to cut the deficit.

In 2007, the Senate considered the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have unleashed unions to organize more workplaces and made certain that the gains of the economy were shared more equitably between labor and capital. Sessions voted no.

Sessions isn't opposed to everything, though. He voted yes on the Ryan budget, which would have lowered the capital gains tax even as it cut food stamps and Medicaid. He also voted for the Bush tax cuts, which lowered both capital gains and income taxes for wealthy Americans, and the 2005 bankruptcy bill, which made it harder for low-income Americans to wipe their debts clean. He's also voted in favor of a slew of balanced-budget amendments which would have required deep cuts in social spending. His budget speeches recite a bunch of policies that will directly benefit the rich, like corporate tax reform, with nothing to directly help the poor.

Sessions' office declined my request for an interview with the senator. But they did send along examples of legislation Sessions has sponsored that shows his interest in the fortunes of low-wage workers extends beyond killing immigration bills. Most of these were trade bills meant to crack down on Chinese currency manipulation or restrict the importation of products that don't comply with American standards or are shipped in ways that evade American taxes. There were also some articles, including "Sessions Takes Stand on Catfish," and an effort Sessions mounted to close a loophole through which "a Bangladeshi company was shipping sleeping bags tariff-free to a firm in Kentucky."

That wasn't entirely satisfying. Sessions has been concerned with China's currency manipulation, and that's doubtlessly harmed low-income workers. But starting a trade war with China is, to say the least, an indirect approach to solving the problems of low-wage workers. And, in a sense, it's of a piece with Sessions' attacks on immigration reform: he seems very interested in helping America's low-wage workers by hurting low-wage workers in other countries.

What doesn't appear to interest Sessions are the policies that follow from the economic theories he's wielding against immigration reform. His record shows no consistent opposition to bills that primarily benefit business owners or the wealthy, or that empower labor to wrest more economic gains from capital. It shows no sustained interest in the fortunes of the least fortunate. And Sessions has rejected policies that would help the unemployed get work and fought policies that would ease the pain of unemployment.

Sessions has framed his opposition to immigration reform in the terms of progressive populism. But the rest of his record isn't that of a progressive populist. And the simple fact is that if Sessions wants to help low-wage, unskilled workers, there are certainly more direct ways to do it than current and future immigrants.

In fact, it could even be done through immigration reform. After all, the Congressional Budget Office projects the bill will generate at least $200 billion in net revenues through 2023, and about a trillion dollars through 2033. Sessions could author an amendment to put all that money into the Earned Income Tax Credit. Or he could use it to fund a lavish education and training program for poorer Americans, so they can upgrade their skills -- and their economic prospects -- at no cost.

But Sessions doesn't want to do any of that. He just wants to kill immigration reform. It's almost as if his opposition to the bill isn't really about poor Americans at all.

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