President Donald Trump argued Tuesday for “switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration” and moving instead to a merit-based system.
In his address to a joint session of Congress, Trump made the case for the idea that expanding high-skilled immigration while choking off the arrival of undocumented immigrants would help lift more American families into the middle class. “If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades,” Trump said.
While Trump has shown he could be open to an immigration deal in the past, he’s been more focused on stemming the flow of border crossers and arresting undocumented immigrants since taking office.
Trump told reporters earlier in the day that he would consider a compromise on immigration. The positive overture from Trump sparked immediate skepticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill, some openness from pro-reform Republicans and consternation from conservatives who have adamantly opposed overhaul efforts in the past.
The administration disclosed few details, but CNN reported that while Trump would oppose a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million in the country illegally, they could obtain some sort of legal status that would allow them to stay. One exception to the citizenship stance could be the so-called Dreamers who came here illegally as children — a population of immigrants to which Trump has taken a particular liking.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the bipartisan Senate Gang of Eight that crafted a comprehensive immigration bill four years ago, said he would “potentially” be interested in getting involved again in reform efforts, should there be one on Capitol Hill.
“Immigration reform is something that most people are in favor of. It’s what’s in that immigration reform that you find out pretty quickly it can get controversial,” Rubio said. “So we’ll see. It’ll take a lot of work. It’s a tough issue.”
Rubio also said a pathway to legal status, rather than citizenship, would be something he would support in a compromise deal.
“I personally have always believed that it’s not a good idea to have millions of people in your country that can never become citizens,” he said. “But I certainly think legalization is better than what we have now. And if that’s what we need to do to get progress, I would be able to accept that.”
But leading Democrats weren’t eager to delve into possible specifics, arguing that Trump’s openness to an immigration compromise — particularly one that allowed those here illegally to remain — didn’t seem to square with his controversial executive orders meant to crack down on illegal immigration, the refugee program and migration from predominantly Muslim nations.
Trump’s executive orders have significantly broadened the population of immigrants who could be targeted for deportation purposes. In recent weeks, Democrats and immigration advocates have highlighted stories of people — including a young immigrant protected from deportation under an Obama-era directive — getting swept up by immigration enforcement agents under Trump.
“Then stop the deportations. Just stop them. Why did you throw away all of the prioritization that had been agreed to under the Barack Obama administration?” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said in an interview when asked about Trump’s latest comments. “Why are you going after mothers? Why are you going after students? Why are you going after dads that have not committed any criminal activities? Why are you going after them?”
Trump has “got a lot to undo,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “The immigrant community is rightfully scared.”
In his speech to Congress, Trump framed immigration as an issue of national security and criminal justice — echoing the campaign talk that has drawn criticism from Democrats and immigrant-rights groups.
Trump pledged his administration would soon begin to build a wall on the southern border and used stark terms to make the case for enhanced vetting procedures, a policy effort that has floundered during his first month in office.
“We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America,” Trump said. “We cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.”
Trump said his administration would deport criminals and gang members. “Bad ones are going out as I speak tonight,” he said.
The president gave a nod to four of his personal guests whose family members, authorities said, had been killed by undocumented immigrants.
Trump and promised a new Homeland Security office would advocate for victims of crimes by undocumented immigrants who previously had been “silenced by special interests.”
Cristina Jiménez, executive director of the immigrant-youth led United We Dream, said Trump would need to rescind his immigration-related executive orders before advocacy groups would listen to talk of compromise legislation.
“I just don’t think that this administration has credibility for us,” she said, speaking from a protest in downtown Brooklyn.
Still, this isn’t the first time Trump has shown an openness to restarting dormant immigration reform efforts in Congress. At a meeting with a bipartisan group of senators earlier this month, Trump said he would “be glad to look at” a new legislative proposal that overhauls immigration laws when the lawmakers raised the topic.
Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, didn’t appear to embrace Trump’s willingness to entertain immigration reform that addressed the millions here illegally.
“I don’t think we can have this conversation yet until our borders are secure, because anytime you start talking about pathway to citizenship or legal status it encourages more people to come,” Barletta argued in an interview. “So I’m not supportive of discussing what I would do until our borders are secure including our airports or any ports of entry.”
A similar sentiment came from Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors lower levels of immigration. “The enforcement stuff has to be in place and running before you can even talk about amnesty,” he said.
During the lunch at the White House with anchors from 18 news organizations, Trump and some of his senior staff, immigration dominated the conversation.
Another person in the meeting said Trump said Dreamers “will be just fine” and noted that his position has “softened” and that there needs to be “a softening on both sides.” Asked if he was going to talk about immigration in his Tuesday night address, Trump said he wasn’t sure and asked Hope Hicks, the White House strategic communications director, to remind him later to consider adding it in.
To date, Trump has continued to press for a sweeping crackdown on immigration, promising to move forward with the construction of a border wall, empowering deportation officials, and attempting to temporarily ban immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
During an immigration-centric speech in Phoenix during the campaign, Trump also said those currently here illegally will have “one route and one route only” to legal status: return to their home country and apply through legal channels. It’s unclear whether Trump still would support that kind of provision.
According to C-SPAN political editor and anchor Steve Scully, who was present at the lunch, Trump also talked about North Korea, Obamacare, ISIS, China, and bringing down the cost of Air Force One.
Threats to Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries were not discussed, though CBS News’ Scott Pelley did ask about Trump’s treatment of the media. Trump said “basically he just wants to be treated fairly by the press,” Scully said.
The lunch follows a similar dinner the night before at the White House with Trump and a group of 20 regional anchors.
Unlike the November meeting between Trump and television executives and anchors that grew heated, Tuesday’s meeting was calmer and Trump was described as “very cordial and charming” though another person present said he “had very basic knowledge of the topics.”
First Lady Melania Trump also stopped by to say hello, though she did not stay for the entire meeting, and the guests dined on Peekytoe crab celery root salad, thyme-brined chicken with spinach gnocchi and a chocolate dulce de leche ice-cream dessert.
The meeting was likely the largest such lunch with television anchors ever at the White House, which Scully said was a credit to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who opened the lunch to outlets like Univision, Telemundo, C-SPAN, One America News Network, and Christian Broadcasting Network. The other person present at the meeting noted that unlike during the previous administration, this lunch meeting with the anchors was less constricted and the anchors were more free to use what was discussed.
Tara Palmeri and Elana Schor contributed to this report.