Raul Reyes: Trump raises hopes he's interested in immigration reform, then dashes them in his speech to Congress
He says this is the most anti-immigrant president in modern history -- and his actions speak louder than his words
Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors and writes frequently for CNN Opinion. The views expressed here are solely his.
Call it the great immigration fake-out. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that he was interested in helping pass an immigration reform bill, provided there was “compromise on both sides.” CNN reported that Trump was interested in a bill that could grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants.
While Trump stopped short of endorsing a path to citizenship for the undocumented, this was nonetheless a startling break with his past hard-line stance on immigration. A senior administration official also told journalists that Trump would be open to legalization for undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious or violent crimes.
Then came Trump’s address before Congress, and his true intentions were revealed. His talk of immigration reform, we now know, was just that: Talk. At best, his earlier statements about immigration reform were a publicity stunt designed to gin up interest (and ratings, which Trump is obsessed with) in his speech. At worst, this bait-and-switch was a cruel hoax perpetrated on millions of undocumented people who might have briefly hoped for a reprieve from possible deportation.
In fact, Trump’s speech offered little meaningful policy on immigration, beyond conflating immigrants with crime and misrepresenting key facts underlying illegal immigration. Tellingly, there was no mention of offering legalization to anyone.
“As we speak tonight,” Trump said in his speech, “we are removing gang members, drug dealers, and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our innocent citizens.” But this claim is undermined by the government’s own data. Statistics from the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement show that while the recent round of ICE raids has targeted “removable aliens” who have been convicted of a variety of crimes and misdemeanors, the largest single category of people arrested were “noncriminals.”
Trump told the assembled members of Congress that he believed “real and positive immigration reform is possible,” as long as lawmakers committed to improving American jobs and wages, increasing domestic security and restoring respect for the rule of law.
Yes, such reform is possible, but it is unlikely Trump will expend any political capital making it happen. He was elected by a base that is fervently opposed to anything resembling “amnesty.” He has surrounded himself with advisers like white nationalist champion Steve Bannon, the xenophobic Stephen Miller, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who wants curbs on legal immigration.
Trump would have to fight with his core supporters and closest advisers to move any plan for legalization forward, and this would amount to a betrayal on his campaign’s signature issue. So despite Trump’s teasing of a “compromise,” that is not happening.
Instead of listening to Trump’s immigration rhetoric, let us look at the actions of his young administration. His anti-Muslim travel ban sent Americans to the streets in angry protest before it was halted by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. His administration greatly expanded the pool of undocumented immigrants targeted for deportation, which has sent shock, fear and anxiety throughout immigrant communities nationwide.
He has threatened to punish cities that do not go along with his plans to deport as many people as possible. He has called for 15,000 more Border Patrol and ICE agents, at a time when illegal entries on our southern border are at their lowest level in decades.
Sure, Trump did recycle some immigration-related policy we’ve heard about for a while now. He spoke about his “great, great wall,” though there was no mention of Mexico paying for it. He said that he wants to move the United States toward a merit-based legal immigration system, jettisoning the family unity principle that has guided our immigration policy for decades.
And Trump announced the creation of a new — and pointless – office called VOICE to highlight the crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. This drew groans and boos from some Democrats in the audience, and for good reason.
What legitimate function can such an office possibly serve, other than to stoke anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiments? All kinds of people commit crimes, not just undocumented immigrants. Immigrants, including the undocumented, are actually associated with lower levels of crime than the native-born. Besides, we already have a federal Office for Victims of Crime, whose functions would seem to overlap with this proposed agency.
There was really not much new in Trump’s speech to Congress on immigration. What was astonishing was how easily – once again – the media seemed to fall for the idea that some kind of “pivot” was in the works from Trump.
Let’s be clear: This is the most anti-immigrant president in modern history – and his actions speak louder than his words.