"We have got to have more than just an amnesty," Sessions said in his opening remarks. "We need a good improvement in the illegality that's going on, and there is an opportunity right now, I'm telling you, an opportunity to do something historic."
Despite multiple follow-ups, Sessions did not diverge much from the remarks, repeatedly telling lawmakers the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was in their hands.
Testifying before the Senate judiciary committee, the longtime immigration hardliner was asked by senators from both parties about the administration's plans for DACA, which President Donald Trump has opted to end
, citing Sessions' recommendation.
Sessions did not lay out details of what the administration may want to do for the Obama-era program, which protects young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation. Sessions has long railed against the program and once again expressed his belief that the executive action was unconstitutional.
Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, though, who has pursued legislation that would offer DACA-like protections for nearly two decades, pressed Sessions on how he could recommend to Trump that the program is unconstitutional and would be found the same in the courts when the Justice Department still maintains a 2014 Office of Legal Counsel memo on its website that found DACA would be constitutional.
"I believe this is accurate, that the so-called approval of DACA by OLC, Office of Legal Counsel, was based on the caveat or the requirement that any action that's taken be done on an individual basis," Sessions said, then appeared to mix up court precedent on the issue.
Sessions said a court had struck down the program because individual decisions were not made, but was seemingly referring to a decision made about an expansion of the program to parents. Courts have not found DACA to be unconstitutional to date.
Durbin noted that each DACA applicant is evaluated individually. All go through background checks before receiving the two-year permits.
Growing frustrated at Session's answers, Durbin referenced his former colleague's past on the other side of the dais. "I believe this is just about the moment that Sen. Sessions would have blown up," Durbin said.
Later in the hearing, Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, also a lawyer, asked Sessions if he considered any due process or "bait and switch" issues in recommending the program be ended, since DACA recipients willingly gave the Department of Homeland Security their information in exchange for protection when the program was created. Sessions said he didn't believe it was discussed.
"It's a valid issue," Sessions said. "You're right to raise it."
But when Hirono pressed Sessions on what might happen to the individuals covered under the program if it ends in six months, Sessions deflected.
"The answer to that is in your hands," he said. "Congress has the ability to deal with this problem in any number of ways." He reiterated he did not support "simply an amnesty" without additional anti-illegal immigration measures, but said "if we work together, something can be done on that."
While Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and Thom Tillis, of North Carolina, also pushed Sessions on saving DACA, both being authors of legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for those eligible, the attorney general also faced questions from hardliners like Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and John Kennedy of Louisiana about the need to have strict controls on immigration.
"The President has made clear, and I think he cares about this, that he cares about young people who came here at a young age but he also believes that the nation should have an immigration policy that serves the national interest and it should be a more merit-based policy like Canada, and that's something I have believed in for a number of years," Sessions told Cruz.
Sessions said there are "loopholes of monumental proportions" in federal law that undermine immigration enforcement, and said Congress needed to act on that, too.
"Legislation from Congress is going to be essential to doing what we want," he said.
Tillis called for "sane people" to bridge the gap between the far left and far right on the issue, saying "we not going to get it all done in one bill."
"We have an opportunity, Sen. Tillis, right now," Sessions said, without addressing Tillis' concern about asking for too much in one piece of legislation.