Sen. Jeff Sessions almost single-handedly trying to derail ‘Gang of Eight’ immigration bill

Jim Avila, Richard Coolidge, and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players
Sen. Jeff Sessions almost single-handedly trying to derail ‘Gang of Eight’ immigration bill

Power Players

When it comes to immigration reform, perhaps no senator has been more vocal about their displeasure with the newest bill, drafted by the group of bipartisan senators known as the "Gang of Eight," than Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.--the Republican many blame for the defeat of the last immigration reform bill in 2008.

“This bill, written by the 'Gang of Eight,' without public process, that stacked in the committee and determined to move it through with little or no changes, it,” Sessions said.

But many pro-immigration reform voices are suspicious that the 49 amendments Sessions has filed, second only to the whopping 77 amendments filed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), are designed to kill the bill rather than change it. Sessions says that's not so.

“We create amendments that reveal the problems with [the immigration reform bill], and I think that's kind of what's been happening,” he told Power Players. “We are beginning to show that there are weaknesses in it.”

He points to the lack of a biometric entry and exit system as one weakness of the bill.

Current law already calls for a biometric system, which has been in place since 1996 and was reinforced in the wake of September 11. However, it has proven to be too expensive and difficult to implement. The current immigration bill, as drafted, calls for screening of visa photo IDs for those entering the country, which then goes into a database and must be matched at time of exit. The biometric system proposed by Sessions calls for additional fingerprinting and iris scans.

Sessions says that Sen. Marco Rubio’s, R-Fla., recent declaration of support for a biometric entry/exit visa bodes well for his amendment and that the amendment is “going to clearly pass on the floor of the Senate.”

Just yesterday, an amendment by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, the committee responsible for the bill, that requires biometric systems in 10 of the highest volume airports within two years of enactment. A study to examine the effectiveness within those 10 airports must be completed within five years of enactment, and then expand to the “Core 30 international airports” within six years. Sessions’ amendment that failed in committee would have required a biometric system at all land ports before the pathway to citizenship could begin.

But a biometric system isn’t the only weakness, as Sessions sees it. When it comes to the border fence, Sessions has been an outspoken advocate for a 700-mile double fence along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border.

“That's the law that we passed several years ago. It's never been done. It's typical of the problem we have at the border where you pass a law that says something is to be done and it never gets accomplished,” Sessions said. “It's proven to work. San Diego had fabulous resorts with a fence there, and the areas where fencing has been built uh, has reduced the illegality and really brought stability and crime has dropped also.”

Those opposing the fence, however, argue that mandating a double-fence throughout the region is an inefficient use of funds and not proper for all parts of the country.

At the hearing last Thursday, fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said: “every time we have this debate there is always a reason the border is not quite secure enough.”

“Southern border fencing strategy is substantially completed,” Graham said. “Fences are not really the best security for the country in some parts… mandatory e-verify system is.”

Pointing to a letter submitted to Congress by ICE Union, representing about 7,700 of the 20,000 employees, Sessions says the current bill does not do enough to ensure security.

Just yesterday, a second labor union, which represents an additional 12,000 federal officers, came forward publicly opposing the bill.

The pathway-to-citizenship is another problem with the current legislation. Sessions opposes the key component of path to citizenship and under his amendment would create a separate category of legal resident without citizenship— allowing immigrants to work in the U.S. without full rights.

“I don't think there's any moral, legal, or other reason why that that wouldn't be a good policy,” he said. “We can debate it, we'll let the Senate and the Congress decide, but my view is there should be a distinction between people who entered lawfully and those who entered unlawfully.”

Critics of Sessions point to amendments that originally required immigrants to prove they could earn nearly $100,000 a year after coming to the United States, to ensure they would not end up on welfare. And another that restricts the number of immigrants entering the U.S. legally to 1.2 million a year—far fewer than immigration advocates say would be necessary for businesses that want a fertile labor stream.

That amendment was nearly greeted with derision and voted down 17-1 by the committee.

The income amendment was changed after Power Players confronted Sessions about its purpose. When introduced to committee Monday, it had been amended to require immigrants to prove they would not qualify for Medicaid or SNAP programs. That bill failed on a voice vote.

To watch more of Jim Avila’s interview, including Senator Sessions’ thoughts on extending full citizenship to immigrants, check out this episode of Power Players.

ABC's Serena Marshall, Eric Wray, Ali Dukakis, Freda Kahen-Kashi, Ginny Vicario and Vicki Vennell contributed to this episode.