Republicans managed to get through several State of the Union responses without attacking immigration (even unauthorized immigration). But if some in the party hoped the GOP was "turning the page," the Senate has some terrible news for them.
Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has just been named the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration. Sessions is the most outspoken opponent of immigration in the Senate — not just unauthorized immigration, but legal immigration as well.
His appointment is rumored to be a consolation prize for having lost out on the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee — in other words, Republican Senate leadership isn't necessarily endorsing his immigration positions. (That said, they did rename the subcommittee "Immigration and the National Interest," which sort of implies that the former is against the latter.) But it basically doesn't matter whether this is an endorsement or not, because it gives him a platform — and makes it impossible for Republicans to pretend they're united behind a modest agenda.
Sessions blows up any GOP consensus in favor of letting in more skilled workers
Congressional Republicans in both chambers are relatively united in wanting to shut down President Obama's 2014 executive actions on immigration, which would allow millions of unauthorized immigrants to apply for temporary protection from deportation. But many Republicans are eager to present an immigration agenda that doesn't just say what they're against, but what they're for: border security and expanded legal immigration for skilled workers. And there's been chatter that the GOP might try to hem Obama in by passing those bills — which reflect reforms Obama has also said he wants — and forcing him to make a decision.
But Jeff Sessions is literally the last member of the Senate Republican caucus you would ask to pass a bill increasing high-skilled immigration. That's because he doesn't want to increase any immigration, skilled or not, legal or unauthorized. During the markup of the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, Sessions spoke at length about the "myth" that the US needed more skilled workers, and proposed an amendment that would have put strict limits on the number of immigrants let into the country.
Sessions even opposes the bills Republicans have introduced in both chambers to increase border security, since they don't go far enough to curb unauthorized migration.
With Sessions in a position of authority, it's really hard for Republicans to claim that they agree with President Obama that the immigration system needs to be reformed, and simply disagree on what to do with unauthorized immigrants. And it's even harder for them to claim that they have a plan for reform of their own.
There's going to be at least one voice against clean DHS funding
At the moment, Senate Republicans are trying to figure out how they're going to keep the Department of Homeland Security running after February 27; they're stuck between a bill that passed the House last week that would force President Obama to stop his executive actions, and a certain presidential veto of that bill. It's likely that Senate Republicans will need to propose a compromise. But Sessions has been the foremost proponent in the Senate of the bill the House passed last week — and it's hard to imagine he'd be willing to accept a plan to fund DHS without killing Obama's executive action.
Republican leadership won't need Sessions' support to pass a compromise appropriations bill, so he doesn't have the power to force a DHS shutdown. But he's likely to be a high-profile dissentor.
Fellow immigration opponent David Vitter is second-in-command
Senate leadership is also giving the subcommittee a deputy chair — which isn't traditional, or something any other Judiciary subcommittee is getting. And that deputy chair is Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), who also has a record of opposing both legal and unauthorized immigration.
Between the two of them, the leadership of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee is significantly to the right of the rest of the US Senate — Democrats and Republicans alike — on the issue of immigration. But that doesn't appear to have been important enough to stop them from getting appointed. As a result, the GOP is making it much easier to let the hardline wing of their party determine how it's seen in the media.