Jeff Sessions and the Death of Compassionate Conservatism

Jeff Sessions and the Death of Compassionate Conservatism September 24, 2018


In a recent speech before immigration judges, Attorney General Jeff Sessions urged his listeners to shed their sense of compassion:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday warned incoming immigration judges that lawyers representing immigrants are trying to get around the law like “water seeping through an earthen dam” and that their responsibility is to not let them and instead deliver a “secure” border and a “lawful system” that “actually works.”

He also cautioned the judges against allowing sympathy for the people appearing before them, which might cause them to make decisions contrary to what the law requires.

“When we depart from the law and create nebulous legal standards out of a sense of sympathy for the personal circumstances of a respondent in our immigration courts, we do violence to the rule of law and constitutional fabric that bind this great nation. Your job is to apply the law — even in tough cases,” he said.

Immigration rights activists—including a number of immigration judges—quickly took umbrage at Sessions’ comments:

Jeffrey Chase, a former immigration judge and now an immigration attorney, said the comments overlooked the fact that asylum laws were designed to be flexible.

“We possess brains and hearts, not just one or the other,” he said. It is sympathy, Chase said, that often spurs legal theories that advance the law in asylum law, civil rights, and criminal law.

“Sessions is characterizing decisions he personally disagrees with as being based on sympathy alone,” he said, “when in fact, those decisions were driven by sympathy but based on solid legal reasoning.”

Sessions may believe that his interpretation of the law is the correct one and that other interpretations are based on “sympathy” and a failure to take the law seriously, but that does not make him right.

Sessions’ insistence that his interpretation of the law is logical while others’ interpretations are polluted by emotions is no more reality than is the stereotype that men are “logical” and women are “emotional.” The reality is that we all have access to both, and that no one makes a decision based solely on one or the other. Law, after all, is often complicated, with room for multiple different interpretations and applications. If it were not, we would not need judges to begin with.

This portrayal also ignores Sessions’ role in setting policy—he’s no cog who simply carries out what is handed to him, he also makes decisions and rulings and sets policy. Early this summer, for example, he chanced asylum policy as follows:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday made it all but impossible for asylum seekers to gain entry into the United States by citing fears of domestic abuse or gang violence, in a ruling that could have a broad effect on the flow of migrants from Central America.

Mr. Sessions’s decision in a closely watched domestic violence case is the latest turn in a long-running debate over what constitutes a need for asylum. He reversed an immigration appeals court ruling that granted it to a Salvadoran woman who said she had been sexually, emotionally and physically abused by her husband.

Mr. Sessions’s decision overturns a precedent set during the Obama administration that allowed more women to claim credible fears of domestic abuse and will make it harder for such arguments to prevail in immigration courts. He said the Obama administration created “powerful incentives” for people to “come here illegally and claim a fear of return.”

The trouble, of course, is that individuals granted asylum are here legally—and that seeking asylum is legal. Sessions’ new policy does not cut down on “illegal” immigration. Instead, it renders illegal immigration that was previously legal.

This is not a case of Sessions waving his hands and saying “we don’t make the law and can’t change it,” in other words. As Attorney General, Sessions does set and affect and make policy. And he’s going with a blanket rejection of compassion.


Do you remember the “compassionate conservatism” Bush preached in 2000? I do. I was only a teen at a time, but the idea made an impression even then. And certainly, we can argue that gutting welfare isn’t compassionate, that growing the carceral state isn’t compassionate, and so on. I never said the idea was based in reality. But there was nonetheless this idea that conservative policies could be—and should be—compassionate. I’m wondering, now, whether that idea might be going out of vogue.

Have we seen the end of “compassionate conservatism”—the death knell for the idea that conservatives should show sympathy for their fellow human beings? From where I’m standing, the answer seems to be yes. Conservatives have moved beyond supporting policy positions that lack compassion—say, opposing Obamacare, or fighting same-sex marriage. Instead, leading conservatives are actively condemning even the idea of showing sympathy or compassion.

Compassion—and sympathy—have become bad words among conservatives. The idea that conservatism can or should be compassionate has fallen by the wayside.

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