Attorney General Jeff Sessions submitted his letter of resignation on Wednesday, the day after the election, at Trump’s request. His departure was months in the making: The president has repeatedly voiced dissatisfaction with Sessions over his handling of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
But Sessions’ legacy will live on in his actions on immigration, a signature issue for both the former senator and the president. Sessions used his time as attorney general to rail against undocumented immigrants and MS-13 gang members, implement punitive measures that led to the separation of families at the border, narrow guidelines for asylum, and elevate the prosecution of petty immigration violations to one of the Justice Department’s top priorities.
The full extent of Trump’s crackdown on immigrants might not have happened without him.
“We did our part to restore immigration enforcement,” Sessions wrote in his resignation letter.
Within months of taking office in February 2017, Sessions instructed the U.S. attorneys in all 94 jurisdictions to prosecute immigration violations more aggressively. Though most unauthorized immigrants are detained and deported under civil law, jumping the border the first time is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in prison. Subsequent offenses can carry prison sentences of up to 20 years, depending upon the individual’s criminal record, though in practice most serve far shorter sentences.
This year, Sessions went further, implementing a “zero tolerance” policy that required the U.S. Border Patrol to refer every person they arrested for crossing illegally to the Department of Homeland Security for prosecution. The Trump administration’s five-week-long experiment with systematic family separation was announced and made possible by Sessions, who took the unprecedented move of extending the zero tolerance prosecutions to mothers and fathers traveling with their children.
As of late October, 47 children that the Trump administration had separated from their parents remained apart from them and in government custody.
Sessions was also the face of Trump’s controversial decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, even though DACA is run by the Department of Homeland Security. In September 2017, Trump sent out Sessions to announce the decision to put nearly 700,000 undocumented young people at risk of deportation.
The DACA decision was blocked in court, but Sessions has still done his best to move it forward. On Monday, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to take up a lawsuit on DACA in hopes it would allow the administration to terminate the program.
Sessions repeatedly tried to block federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities that limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement ― an effort that could have deprived jurisdictions of money to fight crime based on their policies toward undocumented people. He was repeatedly foiled by the courts.
A plan currently in the works to limit migrants’ ability to request asylum at the border will likely be Sessions’ final contribution to the Trump administration’s immigration policy.
Some of the attorney general’s longest-lasting contributions may have been in the immigration courts, where as head of the Justice Department he could single-handedly reshape policy. In June, Sessions instructed those judges that “generally” immigrants seeking asylum based on gang or domestic violence do not qualify for it, potentially barring thousands of people fleeing danger from finding safety in the U.S.
Sessions’ immigration moves weren’t entirely opposed by critics. He pushed for hiring more immigration judges to address the courts’ record backlogs, something that immigrant rights advocates and restrictionists alike largely support. But his department also put pressure on immigration judges to quickly complete cases through a quota system. The judges have accused Sessions of inappropriately influencing decisions, including in a complaint filed by the judges’ union that alleges a case was transferred away from one judge because he didn’t immediately order a man to be deported.
And even as Sessions hired more judges, he pumped some 330,000 administratively closed deportation cases back into the system. The total immigration court backlog now exceeds 1 million cases ― more than double the number when he started.
Even after his exit, Sessions’ philosophical influence will still be felt due to one more significant contribution to Trump’s draconian stance on immigration: Stephen Miller, now a policy adviser in the White House, was once a Senate aide to Sessions.