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Sen. Jeff Sessions Shares Donald Trump's Hardline View On Immigration


Donald Trump has tweeted that he's naming his vice presidential pick tomorrow. One of the top candidates, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. A lot has been said about the difficulty Donald Trump has had getting the Republican establishment behind him. But Sessions backed him early on and became one of his close advisers. NPR's Ailsa Chang traveled to Alabama to find out more about Trump's fiercest supporter in the Senate.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: They're the odd couple of politics, a New York City tycoon and a guy from the Deep South.


JEFF SESSIONS: Donald, welcome to my hometown, Mobile, Ala.

CHANG: One man is mild-mannered, the other famous for bold exaggerations.


DONALD TRUMP: Look at him. He's like 20 years old.

CHANG: But this year, Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are linked by their shared hardline view on one central issue.


SESSIONS: Thank you for the work you put into the immigration issue. I'm really impressed with your plan. I know it will make a difference.

CHANG: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III actually grew up two hours north of Mobile in a tiny town tucked in the hills called Hybart. It still has no cellphone service. And the entire town is one block long. It takes a logging truck less than a second to drive past the whole place.

When Sessions grew up here in the 1950s and '60s, Hybart had only about 10 homes. The senator declined to be interviewed for this story. But Les Johnson showed me around. He's a friend who grew up in the area with Sessions.

LES JOHNSON: Except with the train coming through on occasion, it was quiet - still is. There was woods all around you. So you were literally insulated from the rest of the world.

CHANG: And Johnson says that insulation made for a very sheltered childhood. Even as the civil rights movement unfurled across the South, Johnson says Hybart was a small oasis.

JOHNSON: We had one TV channel.

CHANG: And every day from first through 12th grade, the boys rode a bus for only white kids and thought nothing of it.

JOHNSON: Yeah. The school was segregated. But every school in the South was segregated at that point in time. It was just the way it was. And we never thought about the fact that it was - I guess if somebody had asked us, we would have known. But it was just the way it was.

CHANG: Sessions sought a future outside Hybart. He became a lawyer. And in 1981, President Reagan made him U.S. attorney in Mobile. That was when he brought a controversial case against three black civil rights workers for voter fraud. And Hank Sanders was one of their defense lawyers. He's also a Democratic state senator in Selma.

HANK SANDERS: And see, they call them voter fraud cases. And we call them voter persecution cases - not prosecution, persecution. It was all about stopping black folks from voting, in our opinion.

CHANG: Sessions got zero convictions in the case. But it wasn't a career setback. Soon after, President Reagan tapped Sessions to be a federal judge. And the issue of race would follow him again.

During the confirmation hearings, a Justice Department lawyer alleged Sessions had called the NAACP communist-inspired and un-American. A black prosecutor who worked closely with him also testified that Sessions had called him boy. Sessions denied all of this at the hearing.


SESSIONS: I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create. I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks. I have supported civil rights activity in my state. I have done my job with integrity, equality and fairness for all.

CHANG: But 10 senators on the Judiciary Committee weren't convinced and voted him down. Now, today, Sessions's defining issue is immigration. He's the most vocal about it in the Senate. He opposes a path to legal citizenship for immigrants who are here in the U.S. illegally and even supports limiting legal immigration to protect American jobs. For Hank Sanders, all that points to Sessions's attitude on race.

SANDERS: I really don't think that he think that black folks are equal human beings. And I don't think that he thinks that the Hispanic people are equal human beings.

MATT METCALFE: I've never seen any racism in Jeff Sessions. And he's been at this table for years and years. And I have never seen one whiff of it.

CHANG: That's Matt Metcalfe. He's part of a group of men called the captain's table. They're successful lawyers, scientists and businessmen in Mobile. And they meet every week to talk politics. Sessions has been dropping by for years.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is Jeff Sessions's seat, by the way.

CHANG: Is it really?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes. So you're in a hot seat.

CHANG: (Laughter).

These men have heard Sessions take hits on the issue of race. And for Richard Rogers, these charges are leveled so often against southern whites, it's offensive.

RICHARD ROGERS: The stereotypical view of the Southern politician or the Southern police officer or the Southern anything is really a caricature. We're dumb. We're rednecks. We have no view outside of racist views.

CHANG: And around this table, they are offended by Trump's inflammatory comments about immigrants. When I asked the group if anyone was a Trump supporter, there was a long silence. Then Scott Hunter chose his words carefully.

SCOTT HUNTER: Now that Jeff is on the Trump train, I tell people when they ask me, well, I'm for Jeff Sessions. And if he's with Trump, I'm for Jeff Sessions.

CHANG: Count that as a ringing endorsement for Jeff Sessions. Ailsa Chang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.