The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Three presidents, three speeches — and an immigration debate that has grown coarser

President Trump on Jan. 8 addressed the nation on border security, the topic at the crux of the partial government shutdown. (Video: The Washington Post)
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For the third time since 2006, an American president on Tuesday will use the White House bully pulpit to deliver a prime-time address on immigration when Donald Trump makes a case for his border wall to an audience of millions.

If his forebears are any guide, however, Trump will make little headway in galvanizing the public, even as his aides have sought to convince lawmakers that a “crisis” at the border requires drastic and immediate action.

Since President George W. Bush sat behind the Resolute desk in May 2006 and hailed the United States as a “nation of laws” and “also a nation of immigrants,” the political debate in Washington has grown coarser and more emotional — and the divide between the parties more severe.

Bush’s successors, first Barack Obama and now Trump, responded to the failures of the nation’s massive immigration system and Congress’s inaction by taking more extreme unilateral actions, driving the sides even further apart.

In a prime-time address on Nov. 20, 2014, President Obama announced his plan to use his executive authority on immigration policy. (Video: C-Span)

“People have hardened their positions so much more,” said Julie Myers Wood, a high-ranking official at the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration.

“In retrospect,” she added of Bush’s speech, “one of the things that was really great in that period is that people came together to get 80 percent of what they wanted, which would have been pretty darn good. Unfortunately, now you have . . . folks using rhetoric for political gain.”

Trump’s speech, to be shown live on broadcast networks, could be a make-or-break moment for a president who faces the difficult task of selling his policies to a far larger audience than his conservative base. He has ratcheted up the stakes by forcing a partial government shutdown over a demand for $5.7 billion in wall funding and threatening to declare a national emergency to build a structure without congressional consent.

In May 2006, President George W. Bush addressed the nation on immigration reform. Here's some of what he said. (Video: C-Span)

White House aides said he will speak from the Oval Office for about eight minutes. That’s about half as long as the remarks from both Bush and Obama, who delivered his prime-time immigration address in November 2014 from the White House Cross Hall.

The brevity of Trump’s speech is not likely to be the only difference.

Though they had distinct goals, Bush and Obama used similar language in their speeches, seeking to strike a balance between the need for more immigration enforcement and the wisdom of providing legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants who had lived in the country for years.

Obama echoed Bush, though he flipped around the order, when he stated: “Even as we are a nation of immigrants, we’re also a nation of laws.” Both presidents emphasized that their positions did not amount to “amnesty” for lawbreakers. And they described most immigrants as being willing to “work hard” and assimilate, and made clear that it was not feasible or productive to deport everyone in the country illegally.

Bush highlighted a Mexican immigrant who was severely injured in Iraq while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and later gained citizenship. Obama highlighted an undocumented student who was pursuing her third college degree.

“As my predecessor, President Bush, once put it, ‘They are a part of American life,’ ” Obama said.

Such language contrasts sharply with Trump, who has repeatedly warned of terrorists and criminals intent on exploiting American immigration laws.

Trump has called the situation at the border — where his administration has sought to slow a record number of Central American families by limiting their ability to seek asylum protections — a mounting crisis. The overall number of unauthorized immigrants, however, remains far below peak levels in the 1990s and early 2000s.

This week, Trump said he is considering declaring a “national emergency,” which might allow him to attempt to redirect money from the Pentagon and seize private land to build sections of the wall — though such a move would probably face quick legal challenges.

“The Trump administration wants all of us thinking in terms of ‘tough versus generous’ because under that frame they do pretty well,” said Cecilia Muñoz, who served as Obama’s domestic policy adviser.

Obama, she said, tried to frame the immigration debate around the “distinction of ‘smart versus stupid’ ” in making the case that it did not make any sense to round up and deport millions.”

Bush’s address came amid major protests across the country from immigrant rights groups. On Capitol Hill, comprehensive immigration reform legislation forged by then-Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) had stalled in the Senate, and Bush hoped his public appeal could push the bill over the finish line.

Bush reminded viewers that he had served as the governor of Texas, which shares a 1,200-mile border with Mexico. He touted his administration’s efforts to add thousands of border agents, new enforcement technology and fencing — though he did not call for a border “wall.”

“The United States is not going to militarize the southern border. Mexico is our neighbor and our friend,” Bush said. He emphasized that “America needs to conduct this debate on immigration in a reasoned and respectful tone . . . We cannot build a unified country by inciting people to anger, or playing on anyone’s fears.”

Despite his appeal, the legislation died in the Senate.

Eight years later, Obama took his place at a White House lectern in prime time. Unlike with Bush, the broadcast networks declined to carry Obama’s remarks. The speech was relegated to cable news stations and Spanish-language Univision — even though Obama’s address was arguably more dramatic.

Coming days after Democrats had lost control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms, Obama announced a major new deferred-action program to shield up to 4 million immigrant parents of U.S. citizens from deportations.

Obama described his move as a way to ease pressure on federal enforcement agencies, which could focus on “felons, not families; criminals, not children.” The program built on a smaller initiative for young undocumented immigrants that Obama had created in 2012.

Mindful of Republican critics who accused him of abusing his authority, Obama declared: “I have one answer: Pass a bill. I want to work with both parties to pass a more permanent legislative solution. And the day I sign that bill into law, the actions I take will no longer be necessary.”

But a federal court in Texas halted the new program, launching an extended legal battle that ended when the Supreme Court deadlocked at 4 to 4 in 2016, keeping the injunction in place.

“I would argue that both Bush and Obama were responding in a real-world way to what was in front of them at the time,” said Simon Rosenberg, founder of NDN, a liberal think tank.

By contrast, he said, Trump is fanning public fears even though “the wall is a distraction” that would do little to stem the surge of migrant families seeking to surrender to authorities in hopes of winning asylum.

“They’ve never articulated what problems the wall is solving,” Rosenberg said. “Trump is arguing he wants the wall just because he wants it.”