With newly empowered House Democrats in front of him, Trump inflated the threat of immigrants entering the country unlawfully and sought to make an emotional appeal to the public at large by highlighting guests, seated with first lady Melania Trump, who have suffered the costs of illegal immigration.
He paid tribute to the family of an elderly couple killed by an undocumented immigrant last month in Reno, Nev., and to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer who investigates international sex trafficking. In a rejoinder to some Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), who have proposed getting rid of ICE over allegations that the agency has abused its powers in conducting enforcement raids, Trump said: “I will never abolish our heroes from ICE.”
“In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall,” Trump said, referring to legislation during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to build fencing and other barriers that earned bipartisan support. “But a proper wall never got built. I will get it built.”
That line was one of several during the immigration section of his remarks that scored a standing ovation from Republicans. Even as Trump implored Congress to support “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier,” he made no reference to the modest offer to extend temporary protections for some undocumented immigrants that he had put forward last month in his Oval Office address.
Democrats flatly rejected that offer, which had been denounced by conservative border hawks. Trump’s decision not to mention it again Tuesday suggested the president is resigned to the fact that Democrats are unlikely to accede to his demands for $5.7 billion in wall funding.
With 10 days left to avert another shutdown, congressional negotiators have struggled to reach consensus on a spending plan that could win Trump’s approval. That has left the White House to deliberate privately over whether the president will invoke a national emergency, which he has asserted could allow him to use statutory authority to redirect Pentagon funding for a barrier at the U.S.-Mexico border — a project the president had repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for.
Aides have reportedly prepared plans and draft language for such an emergency, but Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have warned the president that such a measure could backfire by splitting the GOP between border hawks who support it and others who fear it would set a bad precedent as an executive branch power grab.
Trump did not mention such a plan during his remarks, as he called on Congress to “confront an urgent national crisis.”
The wall, he said, would “be deployed in the areas identified by border agents as having the greatest need, and as these agents will tell you, where walls go up, illegal crossings go way, way down.” He pointed to San Diego and El Paso as examples of cities with successful border barriers.
“Walls work and walls save lives,” Trump said.
But immigration experts have said new wall projects would be costly and would have little effect in stopping the flow of illegal narcotics, most of which flow through legal ports of entry. Border barriers also would have little impact on dealing with a record number of Central American families that have been apprehended at the border over the past year, most of whom have entered the country with the intention of surrendering to border agents in hopes of winning political asylum in the United States.
The Trump administration has enacted a series of measures aimed at stopping the families, but some have been halted in federal courts, including a ban on asylum for Central Americans. More recently, the administration launched an effort to force migrants to remain in Mexico until their immigration court hearings, a process that can take months, or even more than a year, because of tremendous backlogs.
Trump sought to offer some balance in his remarks by declaring that his administration supports legal immigration.
In an unscripted moment, however, he made an assertion that raised eyebrows, stating that he is in favor of immigrants entering the country legally “in the largest numbers ever” — a phrase that was not included in the prepared text distributed to reporters ahead of the speech.
In fact, the White House supported a Senate bill last year that would have cut legal immigration rates by more than 40 percent. The legislation was defeated handily, but the White House’s decision not to support a competing plan that would have maintained current immigration rates and offered deportation protections for 1.7 million young undocumented immigrants helped doom it — even though that plan would have provided $25 billion for Trump’s wall.