When Ted Cruz argued in the most recent Republican debate that the ongoing flow of immigrants into the country will “drive down the wages” of millions of Americans, it was a departure for him.
Cruz has long supported higher levels of legal immigration. When he cited concerns over wages and subsequently backtracked on increasing the levels of guest workers and legal immigrants, many saw a new policy intended to appeal to Republican grass roots, but also the influence of the Senate’s foremost immigration hawk.
The controversial argument that immigrants, both legal and illegal, are depressing the wages of the lower and middle class has become something of a calling card for Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. Over the past decade, his office has essentially served as ground zero for the war against comprehensive immigration reform and as a clearinghouse for the intellectual and political arguments against it.
It’s not the first time the soft-spoken Southerner has managed to inject his arguments into the presidential primary. Cruz is but the latest in a series of Republican contenders to consult with the senator on immigration and to come away from the conversation singing Sessions’s tune. Sessions’s influence on the party is more often felt than seen, but as the Iowa caucuses approach and Republicans look to rally the grass roots, it is becoming increasingly visible.
Cruz’s immigration plan, unveiled Friday in a speech in Orlando, Fla., calls for halting increases in legal immigration “so long as American unemployment remains unacceptably high” and for limiting the H-1B visa program to those with advanced degrees. It is a dramatic departure for a candidate who just six months ago was criticizing former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s rightward shift on immigration and asserting, “There is no stronger advocate of legal immigration in the U.S. Senate than I am.”
Cruz had already had a change of heart, but his public pronouncements followed a two-hour meeting with Sessions and his top staffers. The subject of the discussion was an H-1B reform bill — Cruz had proposed that he and Sessions team up to push the bill.
According to Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a leading immigration hawk, Sessions’s ten years of work on the immigration issue have given him “credibility with the base, and that is something that is in very short supply among politicians.”
That credibility is also something Cruz needs to preserve if he is to win the Republican nomination. “The presidential candidates seeking the Republican nomination should listen to Jeff Sessions,” says Rick Tyler, Cruz’s national spokesman. Sessions has “been focused and consistent on solving the problem of illegal immigration,” Tyler says. “Senator Cruz has worked with him on a number of immigration-reform bills and will continue to consult with him.”
Sessions has been unrelenting in advancing a populist argument against comprehensive immigration reform.
Sessions’s credibility derives from his monomaniacal focus on immigration and the role he has played in rallying his colleagues in the Senate and the House against the comprehensive reform bills in 2007 and again in 2013. Armed with reams of data and numerous academic studies, most notably from Harvard economist George Borjas, Sessions has been unrelenting in advancing a populist argument against comprehensive immigration reform. It is the rich, he says, who benefit from low-skilled labor, which keeps wages down and profits up, while the poor have seen their salaries drop or their jobs replaced entirely by foreign workers.
“The principal economic dilemma of our time is the very large number of people who either are not working at all, or not earning a wage great enough to be financially independent,” reads a passage in the senator’s 23-page guide to the issue for newly elected lawmakers. “What sense does it make to continue legally importing millions of low-wage workers to fill jobs while sustaining millions of current residents on welfare?”
#share#It’s an argument not often heard in the immigration debate. On the left, union leaders who might naturally make the argument have dropped their opposition to amnesty (the New York Times chastised them for it in 2000, noting that it would “depress the wages” of native-born workers), and Republicans have focused largely on legality, ensuring that immigrants are entering the country legally. “I think Sessions fills a needed gap in that sense,” says Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs and a contributing editor of National Review. “It makes sense to think about wages when you think about immigration.”
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For Republicans, it also seems to make sense politically to argue that increased immigration levels depress wages on the low end of the scale – it undermines the perception of the GOP as the party of the rich. By pressing the case within the Republican conference on Capitol Hill, Sessions has made the Republican side of the immigration debate something that “really does resonate with a number of people, especially since the market crash, the economic slowdown, which really hasn’t ended for most people,” Krikorian says.
The first mention of Sessions’s name on the campaign trail came not from Ted Cruz but from Scott Walker. “Our sense was that Walker was new to the federal scene and therefore would benefit from our thoughts,” says a Sessions aide, who sent the Walker campaign the primer the senator distributed to freshmen lawmakers in January. Sessions followed up in a series of phone calls with the governor.
Walker turned heads when he told radio talk-show host Glenn Beck that the next president should champion a legal immigration policy that focuses “first and foremost on protecting American workers and American wages.”
Then he dropped Sessions’s name, in a nod to the Republican base that on this issue, he understood their concerns.
#related#“I’ve talked to Senator Sessions and others out there,” Walker said, “but it is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today . . . and we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.”
It was one of the high points of Walker’s short-lived campaign, but he never explained what an emphasis on wages would mean as a matter of immigration policy.
Walker was thrown in part by the tumult Donald Trump introduced into the presidential primary with the announcement of his campaign in June. In Trump, who began to use his enormous platform largely to stoke populist resentment about the type and amount of immigration into the U.S., Sessions and his team saw an opportunity to amplify their message.
The Trump immigration plan has Sessions’s fingerprints all over it.
In a series of phone calls, they provided policy advice that culminated in their collaboration with the Trump campaign on Trump’s immigration proposal. The Trump plan has Sessions’s fingerprints all over it: It argues that “the influx of foreign workers holds down salaries, keeps unemployment high, and makes it difficult for poor and working-class Americans — including immigrants themselves and their children — to earn a middle-class wage.” The policy proposal: Decrease the number of low-skilled immigrants who enter the country legally, and require companies to favor American workers over foreign-born visa holders.
Trump himself seemed to acknowledge Sessions’s political value and the credibility he has with grassroots conservatives. When Sessions joined him on stage at a campaign rally in Mobile, Ala., in late August, Trump was full of praise. “He’s been so spot-on, he’s so highly respected,” Trump said of Sessions, who responded slyly: “I’m really impressed with your [immigration] plan. I know it will make a difference.”
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Had Trump familiarized himself with it, it might have.
Instead, during the Republican debate hosted by CNBC last month, he contradicted key aspects of his Sessions-inspired immigration plan. The plan had called for lowering the rates of legal immigration. In the debate, however, he said:
I’m in favor of people coming into this country legally. And you know what? They can have it any way you want. You can call it visas. You can call it work permits. You can call it anything you want.
Nobody ever called Trump a disciplined messenger. But the label has often been applied to Ted Cruz, and if Cruz continues to carry the Sessions mantle in the Republican primary, the Alabama senator’s views will get a wider hearing than ever before.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor for National Review.