With the ascension of former Sen. Jeff Sessions to attorney general and several of his former staff installed at the White House and federal agencies, immigration policy experts are sensing a sea change in Washington.
Advocates and policy staff of both parties half-jokingly refer to the “Sessions cabal” that has now found power in President Donald Trump’s Washington – a group that for years has found itself outside the mainstream on immigration policy in Washington and faced ire from their Republican and Democratic colleagues for what one sparring partner called “strident” positions.
As the senator from Alabama, Sessions and his staff regularly aligned with staff of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the staff of House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia. Those offices were also key allies of groups that advocate restricting legal and illegal immigration, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Center on Immigration Studies and NumbersUSA.
Already, a network of former Sessions staffers and like-minded allies have made an impact on the administration. When Trump rolled out his controversial travel ban, it caught Congress and many of the agencies that would implement it by surprise. The administration maintains that it worked with the Department of Homeland Security on the order. But according to sources familiar, the coordination largely amounted to two former Sessions staffers – Stephen Miller in the White House and Gene Hamilton at DHS – working together mostly without the knowledge of other rank and file and leadership at DHS.
For years, the loose coalition held a hardline position on illegal immigration as well as a desire to restrict legal immigration, as well.
Those policies put Sessions and the cohort on the outside of most policy discussions that took place under the Obama administration, largely relegated to a role of opposing comprehensive reform legislation and pulling smaller efforts at legislation to the right.
Now, that group is in the driver’s seat of Washington.
Sessions now oversees the Justice Department, including its role in immigration courts and the agency’s civil rights division. Many of his staffers have also ended up in key positions across the administration.
Perhaps the most visible example is Miller, the President’s senior policy adviser who’s largely credited with authoring White House policy and actions on immigration so far. Miller has been the key driver of the White House’s policy and has also been its public face, doing an increasing number of media interviews representing Trump’s administration. The former Trump campaign hype man has also been polarizing, with at least one House Republican aide specifically blaming him for the secrecy surrounding Trump’s controversial travel ban order that surprised members of Congress and has since been halted by the courts.
Rick Dearborn, Sessions’ former chief of staff, was a top transition official and now is a deputy chief of staff for legislative, intergovernmental affairs and implementation in the White House.
Hamilton is now a senior adviser at the Department of Homeland Security. Hamilton was Sessions’ general counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Other members of the Sessions coalition that are now in key administration posts include Julie Kirchner, a former executive director of FAIR who is now working in a top role at Customs and Border Protection; Kathy Nuebel-Kovarik, a former staffer for Grassley now directing policy at US Citizenship and Immigration Services; and Dimple Shah, a former House Judiciary Committee staffer under Goodlatte, most recently of House Oversight, now working on immigration policy at DHS.
The White House and DHS would not comment on staffing at the agencies. The administration has installed key “beachhead teams” of employees who can serve for roughly three months without needing confirmation or public announcement. DOJ, Grassley and Goodlatte’s offices declined to comment.
FAIR’s president, Daniel Stein, said the installation of key people in top posts aligns Washington with public opinion. He decried consensus in Washington and more moderate immigration policies as a reflection of powerful business interests that lobbied Congress and said Trump’s success in the campaign has been his understanding of where Americans want immigration policy to go.
He said “a small group of highly talented, capable people on this side” have coalesced around leaders like Sessions and Goodlatte in recent years, and he noted that senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway used to poll extensively on immigration in directing her polling company.
“Having a grip on that apparatus, of the White House policy making apparatus, DOJ, DHS, to a more limited extent the Department of Labor, the respective (congressional) judiciary committees and at least some support from Republican leadership –although Ryan is very much a queasy … not a 100%-er – so dramatically changes the framework through which immigration policy is directed,” Stein said.
The shift in direction has the moderates and liberal left concerned. Several veterans of immigration policy in Washington have derided the “cabal” now in charge.
Hill sources readily leaked stories about how members of Goodlatte’s current staff on Judiciary helped write the controversial travel ban executive order through their work on the transition, the details of which were unknown to Goodlatte himself, which drew concern on the Hill as even Republicans criticized the lack of consultation in advance from the Trump White House.
Staff and advocates who have found themselves across the negotiating table from the groups over the years worry about how their strident positions will translate into governing.
One advocate who works on special immigrant visas, which are used in part to bring Afghans and Iraqis who supported the US military overseas to the US, called it “disgusting” and “profoundly concerning” that the individuals who fought the program’s renewal are now in power positions.
“What you’re talking about is a cabal of staffers, none of whom are elected, who have absolute power,” the advocate said anonymously in order to speak freely. “It’s profoundly concerning because these are a bunch of people who clearly couldn’t have cared less about bipartisan consensus, and they have what I consider an extreme ideological view and have now been empowered to enact that view.”
CNN’s Dan Merica, Evan Perez and Pam Brown contributed to this report