by Indu Subaiya
I caught up with immigration attorney, Keli Reynolds of Olmos and Reynolds who'd impressed me as a force to be reckoned with at Wontstop.org's action day in LA in November. She found time to share her thoughts on Jeff Sessions' appointment to attorney general in between long days at a detention center, volunteering at a refugee legal clinic in Mexico and working on two briefs. Thank you Keli, to say the least.
Many of us are familiar with Sessions' disturbing comments and stances from the late 80's but can you update us on his more recent record and what concerns it raises?
Just a few examples, since there are so many. In 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down the provision of the voting rights act that required states with a history of discriminatory voting laws to get pre-clearance for any new voting laws, his reaction was, “It’s a good day for the south.” This is a pretty clear indication that he is extremely unlikely to protect the right to vote. He is currently sponsoring the First Amendment Defense Act, which is a law similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by Pence in Indiana. It is an extreme bill that would allow any taxpayer-funded organization to ignore laws that “conflict with its religious beliefs” about marriage. In 1994 he voted against the Violence Against Women Act.
Are there current immigration issues/cases/decisions pending that his appointment as attorney general (AG) would immediately provide momentum for?
The thing to understand about the AG’s role in the immigration system is that he plays the role of the judiciary. The AG has the power to interpret immigration law and, while the federal courts can review that interpretation and overturn it if it is unreasonable, the AG’s interpretation is generally given quite substantial deference. Thus, while there is nothing I can specifically point to that is currently pending, all the AG has to do is grab one of the many cases pending before the Board of Immigration Appeals on any given issue and certify it to himself to start the process of undoing numerous protections currently in place. At the end of 2008, literally on his way out of office, former AG Michael Mukasey issued two horrible decisions, one of which attempted to entirely undermine a noncitizen’s right to effective counsel in deportation proceedings. While that case was later withdrawn under AG Holder (after years of litigation), it did a lot of harm while it was the law.
What threats does he pose to reproductive rights from a tangible standpoint?
The AG has not historically as much influence over reproductive rights as he or she does over other issues. Reproductive rights have strong support from numerous civil and human rights agencies. One thing he can do as AG is to decline to prosecute people who are threatening clinics with violence.
What don't most people understand about the role of AG and how it relates to the other branches of gov?
While the Justice Department is part of the executive branch, it has historically been somewhat independent from the executive branch, especially with regard to what it is investigating. Of course, we don’t know what will happen under Trump. Trump has a lot of financial entanglements, so it is possible that Trump will eliminate that historical independence and meddle greatly. More likely, however, is that Trump’s lack of interest in policy will allow Sessions to mold the justice department into a force for his severe ideology. As I said before, the AG has a near unreviewable power to interpret immigration laws. So Congress would have to actually amend the immigration laws to overcome any extreme interpretations he issues. They’ve shown no interest in amending the immigration laws in the past 20 years.
But more important than the AG's relationship with other branches of government is the role the AG plays in protecting citizens from oppressive state and local government action. Unfortunately, Sessions has an extreme position on states' rights and his justice department is unlikely to enforce constitutional protections.
LETS GO ACTION!
Voice your opposition to Jeff Sessions' appointment by calling your representatives. This site makes it really easy.