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What Trump’s Sneaky State of the Union Speech Says About Immigration

Photo by Gage Skidmore

This week, President Trump delivered his State of the Union address – a speech that typically leaves Americans feeling uplifted, optimistic, and ready to hug the person next to them.

Trump did indeed start off on a uniting note: 

“Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve… All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family.”

But then he blew it.

It began with an obvious jab at NFL players and others who protest by kneeling during the national anthem. Then, of course, he took aim at immigrants.

“Struggling communities, especially immigrant communities,” he said, “will also be helped by immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families.”

This is Orwellian in its contradictions. How will nativist and nationalist policies help immigrant communities? It’s as if he’s mentioning immigrants and erasing them in the same sentence.

Then Trump introduced the parents of two teenage girls who were killed by members of MS-13. This gang was formed in the 1980s by refugees from El Salvador fleeing civil war. It started in Los Angeles and has since gone international, comprising immigrants and citizens alike.

Clearly, Trump was equating immigration with gang violence. He even had the parents stand and prompted applause. According to The Atlantic writer James Fallows, this was the first time, to his knowledge, that a president had introduced victims as opposed to heroes in a State of the Union address. “I have seen him do it consistently enough, at enough events, to feel certain that its intention is to magnify fear,” Fallows wrote. 

That fear-mongering continued with Trump’s next statements: 

“For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities… Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”

“Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminal gangs, to break into our country.”

Trump also introduced an ICE agent who recently arrested 220 alleged members of MS-13. He called ICE and Border Patrol agents “great people, these are great, great people that work so hard in the midst of such danger.”

Immediately after Trump talked about gang violence, he said, “Over the next few weeks, the House and Senate will be voting on an immigration reform package.”

Again, he is linking gang violence with immigration in people’s brains, just as Pavlov linked the sound of a bell with the reward of meat.

Perhaps Trump’s most quotable and shocking comment of the night was this: “Americans are dreamers too.”

Immigration hardliners and white nationalists like David Duke lapped up that line on social media. It was the immigration equivalent of “All lives matter.”

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Trump then introduced a four-pillar immigration plan:

“The first pillar of our framework generously offers a path to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants who were brought here by their parents at a young age – that covers almost three times more people than the previous administration. Under our plan, those who meet education and work requirements, and show good moral character, will be able to become full citizens of the United States.”

That’s promising. But the second pillar calls for building a border wall, hiring more Border Patrol and ICE agents, and bureaucratically blocking many people – including those seeking refugee status – from entering the U.S.

The third pillar ends the green card lottery. The fourth ends “chain migration”: “Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” Trump said. 

That’s an exaggeration. It is more complicated than Trump makes it seem, since immigrants can bring only their closest relatives (legal residents and citizens can bring spouses, children under 21 years old and unmarried children), and only citizens older than 21 can bring siblings and parents through a lenghty process. Check this USCIS table on family reunification for citizens and family reunification for legal permanent residents (green card holders).

“These four pillars,” Trump said, “represent a down-the-middle compromise, and one that will create a safe, modern, and lawful immigration system.”

That’s not true. According to New York Times Congressional correspondent Thomas Kaplan, “Democrats do not share this view. They see the president’s immigration plan as a hard-line approach that is a nonstarter. A Senate deal on an immigration bill could wind up being narrower in scope, focusing on so-called Dreamers and border security.”

We’ll know more this week as Congress continues to debate immigration and a DACA solution before the February 8 budget deadline. Lacey and Larkin Frontera Fund will keep you updated.

On a side note, Congressman Joe Kennedy III, a Democrat from Massachusetts, responded to Trump’s address with a speech in which he addressed DREAMers in Spanish, saying, “We will fight for you.” Many DREAMers and their allies felt this sent the wrong message, since DREAMers speak English and feel American. Speaking to them in Spanish portrays them as “foreign” and implies all DREAMers are native Spanish speakers, which is not true. 

We have a lot of work to do as a country.