Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s choice for attorney general, said in a 2014 radio interview that he does not think undocumented immigrants should serve in the military, and that immigrants in the military in general are more likely to be spies.
“I just think in terms of who’s going to be most likely to be a spy: somebody from Cullman, Alabama, or somebody from Kenya?” Sessions asked, appearing on the conservative Lars Larson show in April 2014.
He explained: “We’re going in the wrong direction in a lot of ways, our head isn’t thinking clearly, at a time when this country needs a good military, last thing we need to be doing is turning out of our military of people who served and bringing in people who are illegally in the country,” Sessions said.
Sessions, currently serving as a senator from Alabama, has been a vocal opponent of most immigration measures, and has often said that immigrants take jobs away from Americans.
He argued: “We don’t have a difficulty getting American citizens to fill our military slots. That is unbelievable that in a time of high unemployment and we get a lot of calls — ‘Help my son get in the military. He’s been turned down, can he get in?’ So I just think this is not the right thing to do right now,” he said.
Sessions was specifically taking issue with a bill that would have made certain undocumented immigrants eligible for military service and citizenship. The legislation failed, but the Pentagon later that year began allowing a very limited number of undocumented immigrants to serve anyhow.
In addition, an untold number of undocumented immigrants have served in the military over the years either by accident, with false documentation, or due to deceptive practices by recruiters.
The U.S. has a long record of immigrants serving in the military, and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act allows immigrants who served in the U.S. military during periods of conflict to apply for naturalization. The U.S. has been in one of those periods since September 11, 2001. Still, some veterans who do not follow through with their service-earned naturalization end up being deported.
“Non-citizen service members offer several benefits to the military,” a military publication explained in 2012. “They are more diverse linguistically and culturally than citizen recruits, which is particularly valuable as the U.S faces the challenges of the Global War on Terrorism.”
Sessions shared an anecdote about Edwin Kigathi Gitau, a man from Kenya who served in the Navy and was arrested in Alabama in 2014 on a charge of extortion. He was charged with threatening a local bank president, asking for $50,000 to protect his family, but was found not guilty the following year.
“How did he get in the Navy?” Sessions asked. “I’m wondering: could you get good test scores from his high school? Could you get a good grade point average from Kenya or wherever?”
Sessions is at odds with Trump on the matter, who said at NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum in September that he is not opposed to allowing undocumented veterans to legally stay in the U.S.: “I think that when you serve in the armed forces, that’s a special situation, and I could see myself working that out. Absolutely,” he said.