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Attorney General Sessions Says The U.S. Foreign-Born Population Is Growing Too Fast


President Trump regularly puts down his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Just this week, Trump tweeted that a real attorney general would have stopped the Russian investigation. Last weekend, Trump called Jeff Sessions scared stiff and missing in action when it comes to the Russia probe. Trump's biggest criticism of Sessions - the one he has repeated again and again - has to do with Sessions' handling of the Russia investigation.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The attorney general made a terrible mistake when he did this and when he recused himself - or he should have certainly let us know if he was going to recuse himself.

KELLY: There is one area though where Trump and Sessions are in lockstep - immigration. The Trump era has seen dramatic changes in immigration patterns and immigration policy, and Sessions has been the driving force behind much of it.


JEFF SESSIONS: We are not going to stand by and acquiesce in the sanctuary cities...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Jeff Sessions visiting border states. He's warning of a new get-tough approach that could result in the separation of some parents from their children.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The program known as DACA is being rescinded.

KELLY: Here to talk with us about all this is NPR's Joel Rose. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, nice to be here.

KELLY: So Jeff Sessions, who we know has been cracking down on illegal immigration, is trying to find ways to crack down on legal immigration. What drives him?

ROSE: There's one point that he keeps going back to over and over again. And it's the number of people in the U.S. who are foreign-born.


SESSIONS: The percentage of foreign-born in America is about as high as it's ever been in the country, and it's surging more.


SESSIONS: In seven years, we'll have the highest percentage of Americans non-native born since the founding of the republic.


SESSIONS: Indeed, we will soon reach the highest level of non-native-born Americans in our nation's history. And it continues up thereafter.

ROSE: So a little bit of history here - forgive me. During the 19th century...

KELLY: You're forgiven.

ROSE: Thank you. The percentage of foreign-born in the U.S. during the 19th century was actually a little higher - close to 15 percent. That was until 1924. Around then, it dropped dramatically before rising again starting in the '60s. Now, it's back up to about 13 percent. And this number includes undocumented immigrants, green card holders, naturalized citizens - anybody who was not born here. And Sessions thinks that is too many.

KELLY: Yeah. And I want you to explain why in a second. But first, this 1924 date that you mentioned - what was happening then that slowed immigration to the U.S.?

ROSE: A law actually called the Johnson Reed Act. It was the first time that the U.S. imposed a numerical limit on immigration. For a long time, there really was no upper limit. That 1924 law was a big change. And Sessions thinks we need something like that now to slow down the rate of immigration. Here's a clip from an interview Sessions gave to Steve Bannon on "Breitbart Radio."

KELLY: Oh, that Steve Bannon.

ROSE: Yeah, the very same Steve Bannon - this is a clip from "Breitbart Radio" in 2015.

KELLY: All right. Let's hear it.


SESSIONS: When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy. And it slowed down immigration significantly. And we then assimilated through to 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America with assimilated immigrants. And it was good for America.

ROSE: What Sessions does not say in that interview is that the Johnson Reed Act excluded huge groups of people. It placed very low caps on immigration from Southern Europe - Italy, in particular - and excluded all immigrants from Asia. I talked to an expert on this law. Her name is Mae Ngae. She's a professor at Columbia University where she studies the history of immigration. And to her, it's striking that Jeff Sessions does not talk about those quotas and those limits when he discusses this law.

MAE NGAE: Well, he doesn't talk about the racist architecture of the entire law, which was to favor immigrants from northern Europe. Its authors were very explicit about their intentions. And they were very clear who they wanted and who they didn't want. And it was very clear that it was based on race.

KELLY: Joel Rose, what exactly is Jeff Sessions issue with foreign-born Americans? Why does he want to limit them?

ROSE: Sessions frames this basically as an economic argument - that we should limit immigrants because they compete with native-born workers and take away jobs, especially from lower skilled workers. Also, immigrants use public benefits and cost taxpayers' money that way. Here's a clip from a speech that Sessions gave at the Heritage Foundation in Washington in 2014. This was, by the way, long before President Trump declared his candidacy. And here, Jeff Sessions praises President Calvin Coolidge for capping immigration back in 1924.


SESSIONS: He believed it was rational and sensible to swing the pendulum back towards the average-wage-earning American. And they did that. They passed laws that reduced the flow for a time - for, I guess, 40 years. And the labor market tightened. And as Coolidge predicted, wages began to grow, and we had a very strong middle class.

ROSE: So basically, Jeff Sessions here is crediting the postwar economic boom to limits on immigration. Most economists say that there are other ways - better ways to explain what happened in the postwar boom - for example, the GI Bill.

KELLY: Sure.

ROSE: And the growth of the middle class could be explained in other ways too. But most economists believe immigration is actually good for the economy overall - or at the worst neutral. And they would not agree with what Sessions is arguing here.

KELLY: That said, Sessions is the attorney general, which means he's the one in a position to shape policy on this going forward.

ROSE: Yeah. And even he seems a little bit surprised by that at times because he's been on the fringes of the immigration debate for a long time. As a senator from Alabama, he worked to kill immigration reform proposals. But, you know, he was just 1 senator out of 100. And for many of those years, he was in the minority - in the minority party. Here's Sessions speaking to immigration judges in October of last year.


SESSIONS: I'm just astounded that President Trump made the miraculous intervention. Now I'm attorney general of United States. I find it really, really, really hard to leave after 20 years on the Judiciary Committee.

KELLY: We should note that President Trump himself sometimes sounds astounded that he made Jeff Sessions attorney general of the United States. But Jeff Sessions is clearly making the most of the opportunity to shape policy.

ROSE: That's right. I mean, Sessions is the driving force behind the zero-tolerance policy against illegal border crossings. That was controversial, to say the least, because it separated thousands of migrant families. Sessions has made dramatic changes to the nation's immigration courts, which he oversees. He's limited who can apply for asylum so that domestic abuse and gang violence claims generally don't qualify anymore. And he's been a big part of the effort to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which he says was an overreach by former President Obama.

KELLY: So it sounds like in this area - if not in all others - Sessions clearly aligns with the White House, no matter how often the president takes a potshot at him on Twitter.

ROSE: That's right. I mean, on immigration it's hard to find a lot of daylight between Sessions and the White House. Remember. Trump campaigned on America first, on cracking down on illegal immigration. White House Adviser Stephen Miller, who is well-known for his hard-line immigration views, used to work for Jeff Sessions in the Senate. And the White House really has had Sessions' back. They defended the zero-tolerance policy for a while at least - until the president decided to rescind it, when the backlash just got too loud.

KELLY: Thank you, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome.

KELLY: That's NPR's Joel Rose painting us a portrait there of the man shaping immigration policy under the Trump administration. That would be Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.