Grassley Gets Help from Trump on Immigration, Burned by Sessions on Justice Reform

Despite Trump's support, Grassley's immigration bill failed on Thursday — the same day the senator's criminal justice reform bill advanced despite Sessions' opposition

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The Trump administration intervened twice this week with Chuck Grassley’s efforts to pass legislation, on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for undocumented immigrants and on criminal justice reform.

On Wednesday, President Trump urged senators to support Grassley’s DACA immigration bill and its “four pillars” of creating a “lasting solution” for young undocumented immigrants who entered the US as children, building Trump’s promised border wall, ending the immigration diversity visa lottery, and making changes to family immigration policies. “I am asking all senators, in both parties, to support the Grassley bill and to oppose any legislation that fails to fulfill these four pillars — that includes opposing any short-term ‘Band-Aid’ approach,” Trump said in a statement.

Despite the president’s support — or likely in part because of it — Grassley’s bill was one of four immigration bills that failed to pass Thursday. Grassley proposed giving a path to citizenship for nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children, but also allocating $25 billion for a Mexican border wall, scaling back family immigration opportunities, and ending the diversity visa lottery. With strong Democratic opposition, the bill failed by a 39-60 vote.

Although Trump had Grassley’s back this week, his attorney general, Grassley’s former Senate colleague Jeff Sessions, did not, making Grassley “incensed.” In a Valentine’s Day letter, Sessions wrote the Iowa senator and Judiciary Committee chairman, “strongly” urging him to rethink a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill he’d been working on for over two years, which was co-sponsored by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin.

“In recent years, convicted drug traffickers and other violent criminals have received significant sentencing breaks from the federal courts and the United States Sentencing Commission,” Sessions wrote about the bill, which proposed sentencing reform for nonviolent drug offenders and tougher penalties for violent offenders. “Passing this legislation to further reduce sentences for drug traffickers in the midst of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history would make it more difficult to achieve our goals and have potentially dire consequences.” (Both Grassley and Sessions are longtime drug warriors; Grassley once likened pot smoking to genocide, rape, and child abuse.)

“It’s Senator Sessions talking, not a person whose job it is to execute law, and quite frankly I’m very incensed,” Grassley told Politico Wednesday. He suggested the Sessions had stabbed him in the back after Grassley “went to [Sessions’] defense” when Trump considered firing the attorney general last year, and after Grassley helped get controversial Trump Justice Department nominees approved.

Grassley also blamed Sessions for the Republican Party’s lost Senate seat in Alabama, which Sessions abandoned to take over as AG. “If he wanted to do this, he should have done what people suggested to him before: Resign from attorney general and run for the Senate in Alabama again,” Grassley griped to Politico about Sessions’ interference with his bill. “We’d have a Republican senator.”

Despite Sessions’ opposition to the criminal justice reform bill, it was approved Thursday by the Judiciary Committee with a bipartisan 16-5 vote.

Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.