Since he first announced his candidacy for the White House, Donald Trump’s immigration policies have been decried as callous and un-American. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, the president sought to turn that argument against his critics, describing their embrace of undocumented immigrants as inhumane.
“Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate,” Trump said in the second State of the Union address of his presidency. “It is actually very cruel.”
Although Trump’s speech was conciliatory in tone, the substance of his immigration platform—the creation of a steel border wall, most prominently—was in keeping with the hard-line policies that form the centerpiece of his administration’s agenda. Those opposed to that agenda, Trump said, are hurting the people they claim to help, starting with undocumented immigrants.
“One in three women is sexually assaulted on the long journey north,” Trump said, pointing to a disputed network of sex traffickers who smuggle “thousands of young girls and women into the United States and sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery.”
The construction of his proposed “smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier” along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump said, will put an end to illegal immigration—and will force “the ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers and human traffickers out of business.”
Trump’s speech—delivered in front of numerous undocumented immigrants invited to the address by Democrats—was thin on specifics about other elements of his immigration agenda, including forbidding asylum seekers from entering the United States. But his persistent promise on the wall remained.
“I will get it built,” Trump vowed.
The argument that the prevention of illegal immigration is “a moral issue” is a novel one for Trump, who for years has portrayed those who cross the border as violent criminals posing a mortal threat to American citizens, rather than victims of violent criminals themselves.
But after Trump’s bruising loss in a 35-day showdown with Congress over funding for his proposed barrier, which led to chaos in the very immigration system that Trump aims to fix, the president’s State of the Union address indicates that he sees framing his wall as a humanitarian solution to the crisis—rather than an authoritarian one—could be a winning strategy.
In a prepared statement released minutes after the address’ conclusion, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen backed the president’s assertion that border security should not be a partisan issue.
“There is a humanitarian and security crisis at our border that will continue to worsen if Congress fails to act,” Nielsen said. “We have all seen the horrors of human smuggling, drug trafficking, and the violence carried out by cartels and other transnational criminal organizations.”
Trump also gave the first indication that his long-promised border barrier—once to be paid for by Mexico, now to be paid for by the American taxpayer—will not extend for the entire length of the American southern border. Instead, Trump said, “it will be deployed in the areas identified by the border agents as having the greatest need.”
At one point, Trump seemed to go further even than his prepared remarks in embracing immigration. In the prepared text released to the public, Trump planned to say that he wants “people to come into our country, but they have to come in legally.” Going off-script, Trump told Congress that “I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”
This runs directly counter to Trump administration policies that have discourages legal immigration, and added hurdles for legal residents to obtain permanent resident status and U.S. citizenship if they use public assistance programs.
Trump also characterized the debate over immigration as a class war, waged between everyday Americans and a cosseted political class protected from the consequences of open borders by their wealth.
“Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards,” Trump said, while “working-class Americans are left to pay the price.”
Trump did not entirely abandon past rhetoric focusing on “criminal aliens,” however. Pointing to the box occupied by first lady Melania Trump and her guests, Trump noted the presence of Heather Armstrong, Madison Armstrong and Debra Bissell, relatives of Gerald and Sharon David of Reno, Nevada, who were allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant last month.
“Few can understand your pain,” Trump said, speaking to the family. “But I will never forget… Not one more American life should be lost because our nation failed to control its very dangerous border.”