Trump's State of the Union pitch on immigration leaves Democrats cold, and parties far apart

Trump's State of the Union pitch on immigration leaves Democrats cold, and parties far apart
President Trump claps at his first State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Win McNamee / Associated Press)

The chances of a bipartisan immigration deal benefiting so-called Dreamers looked more remote the day after President Trump made his pitch in his State of the Union speech, as Democrats saw not an overture but an escalation of his divisive rhetoric.

Before a joint session of Congress and a national television audience, Trump presented his offer as a compromise. It would pair a 12-year path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers brought to the country illegally as children with billions of dollars for "a great wall on the southern border," other border security measures and far-reaching limits on legal immigration.


Trump's proposals to go beyond illegal immigration and sharply reduce the number of legal entries form the biggest barrier to a deal. Democrats and outside experts say his proposals could cut legal immigration by 40% or more over the next couple decades, mostly by greatly reducing the ability of citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor their parents, siblings and adult children.

Democrats say that's too steep a price to pay to provide legal status to people whom Trump himself has said he wants to help — to treat "with heart."

Senators have a week to draft a bill on immigration, if they follow through on an earlier agreement made to provide funding for the government after the weekend shutdown in mid-January.

At that time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised Democrats and a few Republicans that he would allow debate on an immigration bill immediately after the Senate votes next to fund the government; spending authority expires again on Feb. 8.

Two bipartisan groups of House and Senate lawmakers have been meeting this week, but prospects for a breakthrough look dim, especially after Trump's speech.

The president spent significant time during his 80-minute address on what he characterized as the dangers of immigration. He linked gang violence to legal and illegal immigration, and introduced among his invited guests the four parents of two teenagers killed by the largely Salvadoran gang MS-13 in 2016 on Long Island, N.Y.

Many Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, bristled at Trump's words and his use of the young girls' deaths to push for restrictions on legal immigration.

"The president presents himself as generous toward Dreamers, but he's holding them hostage to the most extreme anti-immigrant agenda in generations," Pelosi said Wednesday morning.

Trump "stooped to a new low" in characterizing immigrants, she added. "We heard more insulting words of ignorance and prejudice — prejudice toward patriotic immigrant families."

In his speech, the president said he had presented a "fair compromise — one where nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs."

He listed his demands for security measures. Those include restricting one longtime visa program and ending another. He would limit family unification visas to the spouses and minor children of citizen sponsors, reducing the number of legal immigrants admitted each year by hundreds of thousands. Trump also would end a so-called diversity visa lottery, which allows about 50,000 people annually to resettle in the U.S., largely from Eastern Europe and Africa.

In years past, similar changes to immigration law were considered by Democrats, but only if they were combined with a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally, many of them for decades.

Conservative Republicans have been unwilling to accept such a broad "amnesty," as they call it, even in exchange for sweeping immigration restrictions. But some have indicated a willingness to support Trump's proposal benefiting 1.8 million Dreamers as long as his proposed limits are part of the deal.

"In the last 50 years, this is the best chance we've had to fix our archaic immigration," Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said Wednesday on Fox Business News.


Perdue said "we want to" give "certainty" to 1.8 million Dreamers. "But the only reason that makes sense is if you close the door to this happening again," he added, by limiting future illegal immigration with the restrictions Trump has proposed.

Other Republicans, especially a hard-line faction in the House, say Trump has gone too far with his offer of citizenship to 1.8 million people.

One, Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia, said in a statement earlier this week that Trump's proposal "opens us up to fraud and corruption" by expanding the universe of Dreamers beyond the roughly 800,000 who signed up for protection from deportation under an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Trump has ordered an end to DACA and called for an alternative program.

Brat added, "If you ask voters in states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania that swung to Donald Trump if this amnesty plan keeps his promises, they will tell you it does not."

Trump spent more time on immigration than any other topic in his State of the Union address — nearly 20% of the 80-minute speech — and mostly highlighting what he sees as the dangers of both illegal and legal immigration. He did not mention any benefits for a country often described as a "nation of immigrants." And as he often has in recent months, Trump falsely described both the visa lottery and the family unification visas.

While Trump sought to sound conciliatory, he also had some divisive language.

"My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream," Trump said. "Because Americans are dreamers too."

That line, which some interpreted as critical of Dreamers and their advocates, was met by stunned silence in the House chamber among Democrats, some of whom had invited dozens of Dreamers as their guests.

David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, liked Trump's phrase, writing on Twitter: "Thank you President Trump. Americans are 'Dreamers' too."

Against this backdrop, lawmakers have found it hard to make progress on a deal. The second-ranking Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have been meeting, along with Trump's legislative affairs director, Marc Short, but have yet to find agreement.

Also, a bipartisan group of moderate senators calling themselves the Common Sense Coalition is seeking an agreement that addresses the "four pillars" Trump outlined: a path to citizenship for Dreamers, funding for the wall and more immigration agents, ending the visa lottery and limiting family migration visas.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, said that Feb. 8 is a "hard date" for getting a deal on immigration, yet he was bullish. "We're getting traction," he told CNN, adding, "We're going to make something happen."

The bipartisan group of senators have been meeting in the office of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has described Collins' office as "Switzerland" — neutral ground.


Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.