President Donald Trump used Tuesday night’s State of the Union address to rally a divided Congress behind his unpopular “compromise” plan to grant a path to citizenship for 1.8 million “Dreamers” in return for $25 billion for a border wall and other security measures.
As millions watched the self-described master salesman implore lawmakers who have been at odds for months over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, there were unmistakable reminders of the immigration debate throughout the House chamber.
More than two dozen Democrats invited Dreamers to attend the speech as their guests, while an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and the parents of two teenage girls slain by undocumented gang members sat among the president’s guests with first lady Melania Trump.
Trump used the biggest bully pulpit of his presidency to tout a deal that would give Dreamers citizenship and fulfill a trio of his immigration and national security priorities: building the wall, placing limits on so-called chain migration and ending the Diversity Visa lottery program.
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“These four pillars represent a down-the-middle compromise, and one that will create a safe, modern and lawful immigration system,” he said. “For over 30 years, Washington has tried and failed to solve this problem. This Congress can be the one that finally makes it happen.”
Trump did not directly address the Dreamers, whom he has occasionally praised and expressed a desire to protect from deportation. He referred to them as “illegal immigrants” and spent parts of the speech criticizing low-wage migrant workers and undocumented criminal gang members.
Trump invoked the deaths of Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, teenagers killed by MS-13 gang members in New York in 2016, and said that any deal on immigration must protect Americans “because Americans are dreamers, too.”
A number of Democrats could be heard saying “lies” in response to Trump’s statement that immigrants are allowed “limitless sponsorships” to bring their family members into the country.
Dreamers were despondent.
Arisaid Gonzalez Porras, a Georgetown University student who was a guest of Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva, said she believed Trump was trying to generalize that “all immigrant communities are all gang members and criminals.”
“We work, we own houses, we try to do everything the right way,” she said.
Jung Bin Cho, 23, a Dreamer who attended the speech at the invitation of Democratic Rep. Judy Chu of California, said he is afraid of the cost of striking an immigration deal with Trump.
“What has become clear is that the Trump administration’s agenda is not about securing the border or the rule of law,” he said before the speech. “It is about preventing people from non-European countries to come to this country and making America white again.”
Hours before Trump began his remarks, immigration hard-liners eager to see them deported sparked controversy. Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona said on Twitter that he asked Capitol Police to “consider checking identification of all attending the State of the Union address and arresting any illegal aliens in attendance.”
“Of all the places where the rule of law needs to be enforced, it should be in the hallowed halls of Congress,” Gosar tweeted. “Any illegal aliens attempting to go through security, under any pretext of invitation or otherwise, should be arrested and deported.”
A spokeswoman for Capitol Police did not return a request for comment. But Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a staunch advocate for Dreamers, replied to Gosar on Twitter, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”
Despite the hoopla, Trump’s efforts to sell his immigration plan likely fell on the deaf ears of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who have declared the White House framework a nonstarter.
Senate Democrats, who can filibuster any legislation requiring 60 votes for passage, object to the funding sought for Trump’s border wall — his hallmark campaign promise — as well as proposed limits on “chain migration” that would stop immigrants from sponsoring extended family members for green cards.
Watch: Members of Congress Arrive With Guests: State of the Union 2018
“If he wants to offer a reasonable proposal, then I welcome it,” Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said before the speech. “But you can’t hold these kids hostage for a $25 billion dollar wall.”
House conservatives also oppose the plan because it provides citizenship to the Dreamers, an appeasement they’ve derided as “amnesty” for lawbreakers. Hard-liners are pushing a bill by Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia that would allow Dreamers to enroll only for renewable, three-year periods of temporary legal status without a path to citizenship.
Senate Republicans, the only faction on Capitol Hill generally supportive of the president’s plan, are unable to pass Trump’s proposal on their own and expressed frustration with Democrats who they say are slow-walking ongoing negotiations aimed at reaching a compromise by Feb. 8.
“President Trump has made a very generous proposal,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said earlier Tuesday. The Texas Republican said Trump’s critics “have not so far responded with any counter proposal at all.”
But during Trump’s speech, even Senate Republicans showed signs of balking at Trump’s plan, and generally did not stand and applaud as the president called to end chain migration.
Kellie Mejdrich, Camila DeChalus, Rachel Oswald and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.