Trump sends mixed messages on immigration

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress Tuesday in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. (Jim Lo Scalzo – Pool/Getty Images)

By Meg Wagner

Reform contingent on compromise

President Donald Trump on Wednesday appeared to soften his tough stance on immigration, suggesting that he’s open to reforms that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. — only hours later to revert to his hardline rhetoric in a speech to Congress, discussing crimes undocumented immigrants have committed on U.S. soil and making no mention of such sweeping immigration reform.

“The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides,” said before his televised speech to Congress during a private meeting with TV news anchors at the White House, according to people who attended.

A senior administration officials later expanded on the comment, saying Trump supports a plan that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. without making them citizens. Immigrants in the U.S. illegally who have committed serious crimes would not be eligible for legal status.

Hours later, during a Tuesday night speech in front of a joint-session of Congress, Trump made a passing reference to immigration reform, but provided no specific details of his envisioned plan, and coupled this with a promise of a homeland security crackdown.

“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security and to restore respect for our laws,” Trump said.

Later in the primetime speech, Trump highlighted crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. One of Trump’s guests to the speech was Jamiel Shaw, whose teenage son was killed in 2008 by a gang member who was in the U.S. illegally.

Third time’s a charm?

Immigration reform is not an uncommon presidential platform. Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush each vowed — and ultimately failed — to pass comprehensive immigration reform during their terms.

Bush’s plan would have ramped up border security and ordered agents to return every immigrant caught while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to his or her home country. But it also provided a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. Bush also said he would not support measures toward mass deportations.

His plan was introduced as bills in the House and the Senate in both 2006 and 2007. Partisan gridlock led to all of these failing: Many conservatives blasted them as amnesty.

“Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people and Congress’s failure to act on it is a disappointment,” Bush said in June 2007.

Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns also included promises to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. He did have some success protecting children who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents (a policy granting them temporary, renewable legal status began in 2012) — but he never found a way to pass more widespread immigration reform.

While Obama unveiled an executive action in 2014 that would have offered legal status to millions of people in the U.S. illegally, the Supreme Court killed the plan in 2016.

A softened tone after a promised crackdown

Trump’s suggestion that he may also prioritize immigration reform that would allow some undocumented workers to stay in the U.S. is a stunning reversal from his previous stance on the issue.

Just days after taking office in January, Trump signed three executive orders on immigration: one to approve beefed-up prosecution of people living in the U.S. illegally, another to begin construction of his controversial promised wall on the  U.S.-Mexico border, and a third to increase security along the border in the meantime.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released memos on how it would implement those orders — a plan that speeds up the deportation process and expands the pool of immigrants eligible for removal.

While dramatically different in tone, Trump’s proposed immigration reform could fit in with his executive orders. The DHS’s plan directs agents to go after immigrants who have been charged with or convicted of crimes, while the vague immigration reform plan would reportedly allow non-criminal undocumented immigrants to stay.

There’s some gray area in the type of crimes here, though. The reform suggestion specifies that legal status will only be extended to immigrants without violent or serious criminal histories, while the removal order says an immigrant convicted of any crime will be eligible for removal. It’s unclear how the administration may handle undocumented immigrants who have committed low-level offenses.