The Corner

Politics & Policy

Cory Booker’s Novel Job Requirements for Attorney General

New Jersey senator Cory Booker announced some novel requirements for U.S. attorney general yesterday. Booker was testifying against fellow Senator Jeff Sessions’s nomination for the attorney-general position, breaking an informal Senate tradition against such formal testimony.

As attorney general, Booker said, Sessions would be “expected to defend the rights of immigrants and affirm their human dignity.”

Who knew that an attorney general is in the business of “affirming the human dignity” of immigrants? One might have thought that impartially enforcing U.S. laws and ensuring justice for Americans was responsibility enough.

But let’s say that “affirming the human dignity” of immigrants was, in fact, a usual duty of the U.S. attorney general. The most powerful way to “affirm” someone’s “human dignity” is to accord him moral agency — to assume that he is capable of intentional action and to hold him responsible for that action. If we grant immigrants moral agency, we assume that they are capable of abiding by the law, and that they are legally responsible when they do not. Millions of immigrants have in fact lawfully settled in America. Having obeyed our immigration laws, legal immigrants acquire certain rights that an attorney general could properly be expected to “defend,” in Booker’s words.

Nothing in Sessions’s record suggests that he would not defend the duly acquired rights of legal immigrants. Booker, of course, has a completely different take on what it means to “affirm the human dignity” of immigrants. Booker is concerned with illegal immigrants, and his notion of “affirming their human dignity” consists of exempting them from the legal consequences of their actions. The U.S. Congress has enacted deportation as the remedy for illegal entry or visa overstay. Though the illegal-alien lobby has conducted a breathtakingly successful campaign to delegitimate deportation, including for convicted criminals, Sessions has been fearless in defending deportation as a morally just and legally authorized response to illegal presence. If the American people or Congress agrees with the illegal-alien lobby that deportation is morally abhorrent, the immigration laws should be changed. But as long as they remain in effect, the attorney general should be expected to enforce them. Doing so respects the moral agency both of immigrants who came here legally and of those who did not.

Booker ended his testimony against Sessions with another unfamiliar job spec for attorney general: a “more courageous empathy than Senator Sessions’ record demonstrates.” Booker’s invocation of “empathy” as a job qualification for attorney general is only slightly less inappropriate than President Barack Obama’s declaration that empathy was “an essential ingredient” of “just” Supreme Court decisions. (Obama announced his new jurisprudential ingredient in nominating U.S. Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the High Court in 2009.) An attorney general, no less than a judge, is obligated to be impartial and unswayed by personal attributes or considerations. Add “courageous” to the alleged “empathy” requirement, and you might as well just come right out and say: “Fighting white privilege and the intersectionality of race, class, and gender is the duty of America’s chief law-enforcement officer.”

But here again, let’s assume for the sake of argument that “courageous empathy” were a requirement for AG. Sessions has been the only senator willing to consistently publicize the human costs of illegal immigration for U.S. workers. He has spoken forcefully against the injustice of forcing millions of low-skilled Americans to compete with illegal aliens for jobs. Mass low-skilled immigration drives down wages for Americans, when it does not push them out of the labor market entirely. Speaking only English, rather than Spanish, becomes a liability when a workplace becomes dominated by immigrants; a monolingual American worker will not fit in and will be excluded from an employer’s consideration.

For someone who pretends to care about the “poor . . . and people of color,” Booker is blindly indifferent to the consequences of illegal immigration. Sessions, however, can be expected to enforce our immigration laws as Congress intended, and in so doing, to restore fairness to the American workplace. That such an action may arise out of “empathy” is legally irrelevant; the most important consideration is that it is just.