Sessions opposes not only providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — many Republicans are against that — but also raising the level of legal immigration. The Gang of Eight’s bill would have markedly increased it, and Sessions was one of the few voices on Capitol Hill arguing that even legal immigration hurts Americans, particularly when the economy is weak and unemployment high.

He has cast himself as a Beltway champion of the middle class, and his message of economic populism is part of a broader attempt to revitalize it. For Sessions, the issue of immigration illustrates better than anything else the divide between the ruling class — the “masters of the universe” — and working-class Americans, with the vast majority of CEOs and business owners favoring reform that, as he sees it, would deal a blow to America’s poor and middle-class workers. He has time and again cited Congressional Budget Office findings that increased immigration lowers wages overall but particularly for the poor. And, though many Republicans have called for allowing high-skilled immigrants into the U.S., particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, Sessions has repeatedly drawn attention to statistics suggesting we have more than enough.

So when, less than two months after Romney’s loss, Florida senator and Republican rising star Marco Rubio made it clear he would take the lead in negotiating an immigration-reform proposal with Democrats and the Obama administration, Sessions prepared for battle. Rubio had nearly all of the major financial forces in the GOP behind him; Sessions had history on his side.