President Trump offered mixed signals Tuesday about his plans on immigration, suggesting privately that he is open to an overhaul bill that could provide a pathway to legal status — but not citizenship — for potentially millions of people who are in the United States illegally but have not committed serious crimes.
Yet Trump made no mention of such a proposal during his prime-time address to a joint session of Congress, instead highlighting the dangers posed by illegal immigration.
At a private White House luncheon with television news anchors ahead of his speech, Trump signaled an openness to a compromise that would represent a softening from the crackdown on all undocumented immigrants that he promised during his campaign and that his more hard-line supporters have long advocated.
“The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides,” Trump told the anchors. His comments, reported by several of the journalists present, were confirmed by an attendee of the luncheon.
Trump said he hopes both sides can come together to draft legislation in his first term that holistically addresses the country’s immigration system, which has been the subject of intense and polarizing debate in Washington for more than a decade. Former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush both failed in their attempts to push comprehensive immigration reform bills through Congress that offered a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Trump’s comments to the news anchors were particularly striking given his long history of criticism of U.S. immigration policy and a presidential campaign centered on talk of mass deportations of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security issued new guidelines that dramatically expand the pool of immigrants that could be targeted for removal.
His remarks came shortly before he met at the White House with family members of Americans killed by illegal immigrants. Trump invited those family members to sit near first lady Melania Trump at his address, part of an emotional appeal by the president and his administration to build support for stronger border-control measures.
At the meeting with television anchors, Trump suggested he is willing to address legal status for those who are in the country illegally but have not committed crimes. But he would not necessarily support a pathway to citizenship, except perhaps for “Dreamers,” a group of nearly 2 million who were brought into the country illegally as children, according to a report by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper, who attended the luncheon.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House principal deputy press secretary, said she could not confirm Trump’s comments in the private event.
“The president has been very clear in his process that the immigration system is broken and needs massive reform, and he’s made clear that he’s open to having conversations about that moving forward,” Sanders said in a Tuesday afternoon briefing with reporters. “Right now his primary focus, as he has made [clear] over and over again, is border control and security at the border.”
Trump on Tuesday reiterated his vow to build a “great, great wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border and increase funding for federal law enforcement efforts in border areas.
“As we speak, we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens,” Trump said. “Bad ones are going out as I speak tonight.”
It is unclear whether Trump will follow through on pursuing an immigration compromise. The president in the past has made comments, in private or in media interviews, that have not been borne out by his administration’s policies. For example, he has yet to follow through on his pledge to investigate alleged voter fraud in the 2016 election.
In early February, Trump expressed openness to revisiting past immigration overhaul efforts, including the failed 2013 “Gang of Eight” bill, which drew opposition from Republicans. At a meeting with moderate Democratic senators, Trump told them he thought that bill was something he was interested in revisiting, according to the senators.
The White House later denied that Trump was open to the legislation and said that he considered the bill to be “amnesty.”
In his address to Congress, Trump called on lawmakers to pursue reforms to move the nation’s legal immigration program toward a more “merit-based” system.
Trump said curbing the number of “lower-skilled” immigrants who are entering the country would help raise wages for American workers who would be able to “enter the middle class and do it quickly. And they will be very, very happy indeed.”
Though he didn’t spell out details in his speech, Trump’s aides have envisioned proposals to dramatically slash the number immigrants who receive green cards – granting them permanent residence in the United States – which stands at more than 1 million per year. If enacted, such moves could be the first major cuts to legal immigration in more than half a century.
After his meeting with the anchors Tuesday, Trump met in the Oval Office with Jamiel Shaw Sr., whose son was shot by a gang member in Los Angeles in 2008, and Jessica Davis and Susan Oliver, who were married to California police officers killed in the line of duty in 2014.
Trump’s spotlight on the victims’ families has sparked an outcry among those who charge that the president is exaggerating the risks to sow public fear and make his proposals more politically expedient. Studies have shown that immigrants, including the estimated 11 million living in this country illegally, have lower crime rates than the native-born population.
“It is consistent with the campaign and also with the political tone of the executive orders he signed,” said Randy Capps, director of research at the Migration Policy Institute. “They are very clearly trying to highlight a criminal element that does exist in the unauthorized population. But they are implying it’s a broad population, when we believe it’s a narrow population from the statistics we’ve seen.”
Trump was joined several times on the campaign trail by family members of victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants, including “angel moms,” whose children had been killed. As president, Trump has pledged to raise their profiles, and the new DHS guidelines issued last week included a provision to create a new office to support such victims and their families.
“I want you to know — we will never stop fighting for justice,” Trump said Tuesday night, addressing his guests. “Your loved ones will never be forgotten, we will always honor their memory.”