It took President Trump more than half an hour into his State of the Union to mention immigration, and when he did it seemed to suck much of the oxygen out of the room. In an uncharacteristic appeal to unity and a mostly anodyne recitation of his accomplishments on tax reform, job creation, energy production, and criminal justice reform in the first half hour, Trump had both Democrats and Republicans jumping to their feet to applaud. But trying to rouse the audience on what he called “the urgent national crisis” at our southern border fell flat.
The president had little new to add to his litany of horribles. Once again he invoked the specter of “a large, organized caravan” marching north to the U.S. border, claiming “that Mexican cities, in order to remove the illegal immigrants for their communities, are getting buses and trucks to bring them up to our country in areas where there is little border protection.” He repeated the shocking but not necessarily representative statistic that 1 in 3 migrant women are sexually assaulted on their journey through Mexico. He introduced another of his “angel families,” whose loved ones had allegedly been killed by an illegal immigrant, and claimed that “countless Americans” have faced a similar fate. And once again, he made an argument for funding a wall—or as he now describes it, “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier.” But he also suggested that the wall could be built in areas “identified by border agents as having the greatest need.” Missing was the passion he invokes at his rallies. It was almost as if he is getting tired of the issue, as certainly many in the audience—in the House chamber and at home—are.
It is hard to imagine that Trump’s hardline base will be pleased by the speech. He offered an olive branch on legal immigration: “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever,” he said, despite having implemented changes that have significantly reduced the number of legal immigrants admitted during his tenure. But what should cause real heartburn among the immigration restrictionists was his plea, “let’s work together, compromise, and reach a deal together that will truly make America safe.” If we take the president’s words at face value, he doesn’t look eager to shut down the government again February 15.
But what may disappoint Trump’s base could actually pave the way forward. The president’s speech gave the conference committee working through the appropriations bill a green light to come up with a real compromise. Democrats are going to have to give something on border security and the president is going to have to settle for less than $5.7 billion. Democrats would be smart to offer funding for barriers where they make sense in return for protections for the DACA population and those with Temporary Protected Status. And Republicans should accept the offer and move on.