President Trump will feature family members of Americans killed by illegal immigrants during his speech Tuesday to a joint session of Congress, seeking to make an emotional appeal to build support for stronger border-control measures.
Trump met in the Oval Office ahead of the prime-time address 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.
Their presence in the presidential box in the House chamber Tuesday evening represents a pointed message about the costs of illegal immigration a week after the Department of Homeland Security rolled out sweeping new enforcement guidelines. Trump said the measures are aimed at ramping up the deportations of immigrants who present a public safety risk, part of a broader effort that includes plans for a border wall with Mexico and attempts to restrict refugees from seven majority-Muslim nations.
Trump’s spotlight on the victims’ families has sparked an outcry among those who charge the president is exaggerating the risks to sow public fear to make his proposals more politically expedient. Studies have shown that immigrants, including the estimated 11 million living here illegally, have lower crime rates than the native-born population.
On the campaign trail, Trump said he would seek to quickly deport between 2 million and 3 million immigrants with criminal records. But a study by the Migration Policy Institute found that 820,000 unauthorized immigrants had committed other crimes, including about 300,000 with felony records.
“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 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.”
Proponents of stricter immigration policies said the president is trying to reframe the debate by focusing it around the harmful effects U.S. immigration laws can have on Americans.
“The media tends to cover immigration issues through the frame of how it impacts everybody but actual citizens of the United States,” Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser, said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek published Tuesday.
Trump is expected to make immigration enforcement a focus of his speech, but a senior administration official told news anchors at a White House meeting Tuesday that the president may also use the address to indicate that he wants to work on bipartisan legislation to overhaul immigration law, according to one attendee.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House principal deputy press secretary, declined to confirm whether the president supports bipartisan reforms and emphasized that the current focus is on enforcement.
“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,” she said. “Right now his primary focus, as he has made over and over again, is border control and security at the border.”
On the campaign trail, Trump railed against legal restrictions and federal and local policies that obstructed the deportations of some convicted criminals.
In a 2015 letter to the Obama administration, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) cited federal data showing that 121 killings were carried out between 2010 and 2014 by unauthorized immigrants who had been convicted of crimes but were not deported. Sessions is now the U.S. attorney general.
In a statement, Grassley said Trump is “highlighting a real concern for Americans … There’s tremendous support for detaining and returning to their home countries criminal illegal immigrants, who have, for instance committed dangerous crimes such as murder, sexual assault and drunk driving, so it’s good to see President Trump draw attention to the problem and begin carrying out the promise from the campaign.”
In many cases, immigrants convicted of crimes are released from federal custody because of a Supreme Court ruling that prevents indefinite detention because their countries will not accept them back.
“People who come here unlawfully and commit crimes, they’re going to be out of here,” Sessions said Tuesday in a speech to the National Association of Attorneys General. “Some of these countries refusing to take them back, we have the ability and the power and the legal requirement to confront them and take action against them if they don’t take them back. We’re housing a lot of people who commit serious crimes, who entered the country unlawfully, who have long since been due to be deported.”
In other cases, local jurisdictions known as “sanctuary cities” have passed laws that prohibit officials from sharing information with federal authorities about illegal immigrants who pass through the judicial system. In 2015, Kathryn Steinle, a San Francisco woman, was shot and killed by an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who had been deported five times, a case that drew national attention.
Trump was joined several times on the campaign trail by family members of victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants, including so-called “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.
“The point of having the angel families there is not to say, ‘Look at the foreigners that are coming to get you,’ ” said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels. “The point is that the policies are dysfunctional and have resulted in tragedy for families.”
Trump’s approach stands in stark contrast to his predecessor. At several of his State of the Union addresses, President Barack Obama invited younger unauthorized immigrants, known as “dreamers,” who had arrived in the country illegally as children. Obama pursued more liberal policies that protected their rights to go to school and work in the country.
After deportations rose to record levels in his first term, Obama moved to prioritize enforcement actions around hardened criminals and those who had recently arrived in the country. He established a deferred action program that has granted renewable, two-year work permits to more than 750,000 dreamers, a program Trump has threatened to overturn.
The guidelines issued last week by Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly significantly broadened the pool of immigrants that could be targeted for removal. And Trump has promised to unveil a new executive order this week to reestablish a travel ban on refugees and immigrants from several majority-Muslim countries over national security concerns after a similar order in January was blocked by a federal court.
Democratic Congress members have invited dreamers, refugees and other immigrants to join them in the chamber for Trump’s address, aiming to create a visual contrast with the president.
Several Latino members said Trump was using extreme cases to obscure how his administration was randomly enforcing the law. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said Democrats favored the Obama administration’s guidelines that prioritized the deportation of violent criminals.
“There are felonies that should be a high priority, and there are multiple misdemeanors; if someone has a DUI, there are multiple levels of that,” said Gallego. “But Trump’s executive orders are encouraging ICE to skip due process.”
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who like Gallego is bringing a guest whose mother had been deported, said Trump and other hard-liners had already learned how sympathetic stories hurt their cause.
“Once the dreamers became public, that whole public opinion shift occurred,” said Gallego. “Dreamers are a fight he doesn’t want to take on.”
And both Grijalva and Gallego said the political experience of Arizona, where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio lost reelection despite a Republican tide last year, previewed how Trump’s experiment would end.
“It’s got a short shelf life,” said Grijalva. “That kind of bull---- doesn’t last forever.”
David Weigel and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.