By Josh Leach on November 8, 2018
Sessions’ resignation appears to have been a politically-motivated ouster and raises new concerns that President Trump may act to undermine the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into election meddling. For his part, however, Sessions’ two years in office were stained by profound injustice.
As we call on the next U.S. Attorney General to do a better job of upholding human and civil rights, we reflect on some of the worst chapters of Sessions’ tenure. The following are actions that must never be repeated in a nation that claims to be committed to due process and the rule of law.
In May of last year, Jeff Sessions formalized a Department of Justice (DOJ) policy of criminally prosecuting all migrants who cross the border outside official ports of entry – even if they are parents traveling with children or asylum-seekers fleeing for their lives. Misleadingly dubbed the “zero tolerance” policy, this formed the basis of the Trump administration’s family separation crisis, as U.S. border agents began taking children from parents and referring the latter to the DOJ for prosecution.
Family separation is widely understood to be a form of torture. In a 2015 report, UUSC noted that: “Forced separation between a parent and child for an indefinite period of time is, by its very nature, traumatic.” To this day, at least 50 children remain deprived of their parents as a result of the Trump administration’s policy, and separation continues for siblings and extended family members.
Closing avenues for asylum
Sessions’ criminal prosecution of asylum-seekers violates a binding international protocol on the rights of refugees that the United States has pledged to uphold, and all policies that aim to “deter” people from exercising their right to request asylum under international law are immoral and unlawful. While Sessions did not create the specific programs, such as Operation Streamline, that have been used to over-prosecute harmless immigration-related offenses for a long time, he carried them to new extremes.
Sessions also used his personal authority as Attorney General to throw out prior legal decisions protecting the right to seek asylum for survivors of domestic violence and gang-related persecution. This move potentially places lives at risk and shows the dangerous lack of separation of powers in the U.S. immigration system, where immigration judges currently serve as part of the DOJ. The result is a system in which the executive branch acts as both judge and prosecutor in a civil immigration proceeding.
Targeting communities of color
During his tenure as Attorney General, Sessions reversed key gains in criminal justice reform and civil rights protections that had been made in prior years, undermining the safety and rights of over-policed communities of color. Among his first actions as Attorney General was to issue a memo instructing federal prosecutors to pursue the maximum possible charges and penalties for all crimes, including non-violent drug offenses.
Sessions also worked to reverse federal consent decrees with local police departments that had been found to systematically violate civil rights and threatened to withhold essential DOJ funds from cities that limited their willingness to share information with federal immigration enforcement.
In his letter of resignation, Jeff Sessions claimed that he would be remembered for having “restored and upheld the rule of law” during his tenure. In fact, the opposite is true. In the policies described above, the Attorney General’s actions violated the U.S. and international human rights commitments that are the essence of the rule of law.
During a recent appearance in Boston, a group of faith leaders – including several UU activists – called on Sessions to “Repent, help those in need.” It is not too late for Sessions or his successor to heed that call. Future leadership of the DOJ must uphold and protect the civil and human rights of all members of our society, including the most vulnerable.