WASHINGTON — For years, immigration advocates have defined hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the country illegally as children by the sympathetic term “Dreamers.” Long irritated by the rhetorical branding, President Donald Trump finally came up with his own rejoinder: “Americans are Dreamers, too.”
The point was to shift the terms of the polarizing immigration debate and reinforce the argument that those born in the United States or living here legally deserve sympathy as well. But if Trump believed the line in his State of the Union address would help bring the sides together for the bipartisan agreement he says he seeks, he received little encouragement Wednesday. The two sides appeared farther apart than ever.
Although Trump characterized his immigration proposal as a “down-the-middle compromise,” his speech further alienated him from the bipartisan group of lawmakers trying to negotiate a deal. Rather than act as a catalyst for cooperation, it seemed to only deepen the divide. And it underlined the political ramifications of the nativist language the president used in the 2016 campaign and during his first year in office.
The president faces a year in which a bitterly divided Congress and a swirling Russia scandal could rob him of any high-profile legislative successes. He is sure to play up the benefits of the landmark tax cuts he helped push through last year, as he did at the White House on Wednesday in an appearance with families who will benefit from the plan. But his proposal for a $1.5 trillion building program to fix the nation’s roads, bridges, airports and other structures generated little enthusiasm, and he offered few other major concrete ideas for legislation.
It was the starkly divergent reactions to his discussion of immigration, however, that stood out most on Wednesday. Democrats saw his speech as a dark and hard-edge portrayal of immigrants as gang members and killers, and they seemed more, rather than less, resistant to a deal with Trump that would upset their liberal base. While some conservatives were unhappy that Trump had, in their view, gone too far, Republican officials focused their ire on the Democrats for what they considered their intransigence.
“The Democrats are going to be even less disposed to do anything the president suggests even if it’s in their interest,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates more limits on immigration. And “it hardens attitudes among Republicans that the Democrats are simply unreasonable and you can’t talk to them.”
Jason Grumet, the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, an organization in Washington that favors an agreement, said Trump clearly wanted to reach an immigration deal but was not receiving good advice about how to achieve that. “Last night’s speech didn’t preclude a deal, but it sure squandered an opportunity to advance one,” he said.
In the address, Trump offered what he called an “open hand” on the issue of immigration and challenged Congress to “finally get the job done” on a long-delayed overhaul of the system. But in describing the outlines of a plan he said “fulfills my ironclad pledge to sign a bill that puts America first,” Trump turned to the disturbing imagery of teenage girls murdered by immigrant members of the MS-13 gang.
With their parents in the audience, Trump described the night that “these two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown.” Asking the parents to stand, the president said: “Tonight, everyone in this chamber is praying for you. Everyone in America is grieving for you.”
Democrats, in particular, reacted angrily, saying the president was linking immigration to gang violence and murder. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, called the remarks “dangerous” and counterproductive to resolving the debate over the fate of the Dreamers.
“The president presents himself as generous toward Dreamers, but he’s holding them hostage to the most extreme anti-immigrant agenda in generations,” Pelosi said. “We heard more insulting words of ignorance and prejudice — prejudice toward patriotic immigrant families last night.”
They also heard Trump try to appropriate the term Dreamer with his applause line about Americans. Publicly and privately, the president has recoiled at using the nickname, instead referring to them as “the DACA people” or the “folks from DACA,” after the acronym for President Barack Obama’s program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that gives them work permits and protection from deportation. During a White House dinner with the top Democrats in Congress in the fall, Trump urged them not to use the word Dreamers in public.
He has experimented with phrases to turn the argument around for months. “We must also have heart and compassion for unemployed, struggling and forgotten Americans,” Trump said in September when he ordered an end to the DACA program. “Above all else, we must remember that young Americans have dreams, too.”
The term Dreamers was tied to legislation that has never passed Congress called the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or the DREAM Act. Krikorian said that for too long, liberals had been able to set the terms of the debate. “The very notion, Dreamers, was a marketing coup quite frankly,” he said. “The president’s attempt at taking back the term Dreamers is likely to resonate.”
Stephen Miller, the president’s top immigration adviser, and other aides devised a four-part plan to carefully navigate the difficult political terrain that has prevented numerous earlier attempts to overhaul immigration during the past two decades.
Part 1 was a concession to immigrant activists that would give 1.8 million young immigrants a path to citizenship, effectively restoring and expanding Obama’s DACA program by enshrining it into law. Part 2 would create a $25 billion trust fund for a border wall. Part 3 would end decades of rules allowing legal immigrants to bring their families to the country. And Part 4 would shut down a lottery program aimed at encouraging immigration from underrepresented countries.
The White House described the plan last week as “extremely generous” and predicted it would gain wide support from both sides of the aisle. That was probably overly optimistic.
Senators from both parties met before Trump’s speech Tuesday to continue negotiations — but without much regard to his four-point plan. One Democratic aide said the group was largely ignoring the president’s proposals and was making good progress toward a measure that could receive at least the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. Staff members for the group are scheduled to continue discussions over the weekend.
White House officials dismissed the criticism, pointing to instant polls that showed that large numbers of people agreed with the president’s immigration comments and noting the speech drew positive reaction from Republicans, conservatives and law enforcement officials.
“It made by heart swell to hear him say Americans have dreams, too,” said Mary Ann Mendoza, whose son was killed in a head-on collision with a car driven by an unauthorized immigrant who was high on meth. She said Trump had made a good-faith immigration proposal. “I think the Democrats need to embrace that. They need to go into it with an open mind and get to work.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, rejected the notion that Trump was refusing to compromise as “laughable.” She pointed out that the president’s plan would provide legal status for nearly three times the number of people who had signed up for protection from deportation under the DACA program started by Obama.
Trump’s advisers insisted that Democratic complaints were more evidence that liberal lawmakers did not want to find a solution to fix the immigration system and protect young immigrants.
“They simply are sitting on their hands and being angry instead of coming to the table to have real negotiations,” Sanders said Wednesday on CNN.