Updated | President Donald Trump’s mixed messages on immigration have taken supporters and opponents of his policies on something of a roller coaster ride this week, and they're heightening the sense of uncertainty felt in immigrant communities, with many fearing they could be swept up in a new wave of deportations.
Earlier this week, the president seemed to suggest he was open to an immigration reform compromise, what The New York Times trumpeted in a headline as “a drastic shift.” According to the Times and other outlets, the president told a gathering of television news anchors at the White House Tuesday afternoon: “The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides.” Coming just hours before his first address to a joint session of Congress, many interpreted that as a signal Trump intended to push a new immigration initiative, one much more conciliatory than the tough enforcement actions he and his team have been pursuing during his first month in office. The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce even put out a press release touting the news: “Trump to propose comprehensive immigration bill.”
Except he didn’t. In his generally well-received speech at the Capitol Tuesday night, the president reiterated a crime-and-punishment approach, focusing on the risks undocumented immigrants pose to society, rather than what advocates say are their many contributions. “We will soon begin the construction of a great wall along our southern border,” Trump promised. “As we speak, we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our citizens.”The remarks were instantly reassuring to immigration hard-liners. “We were hearing the same rumors as everybody else was,” says Ira Mehlman, media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for stringent restrictions on immigration. “We got the transcript of the address and went through it and said, ‘There’s nothing in there.’”
“His speech the night before last was as close to perfect as any I have heard in this chamber,” echoes Representative Steve King, a supporter of tough immigration enforcement. “The notes he touched on on immigration were the right notes. He emphasized, I thought with significant clarity, the necessity to restore the respect for the rule of law,” the Iowa Republican tells Newsweek. And CNN reported Wednesday that a senior administration official told the network the president's comments were an intentional "misdirection play" aimed at generating positive news coverage.
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) lamented that the president’s speech to Congress “maintained the same unyielding anti-immigrant rhetoric that marked his campaign.” It was a letdown for LULAC and other immigration reform advocates, after what seemed a series of signals that the White House was preparing to pivot on immigration after numerous legal setbacks and the outcry over a surge in deportations. The Department of Homeland Security has outlined far more aggressive, broad targets for deportation than the Obama administration, and has made headlines with a series of immigration raids around the country that have caught up not just violent criminals—which Barack Obama focused on—but people who have committed just low-level offenses.
One particular area the president has hinted at a change of heart is on the undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Under President Obama, those undocumented immigrants were granted temporary legal status through a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to terminate DACA on his first day in office—but more than a month into his presidency, that still hasn’t happened. And during his first solo White House press conference, Trump on February 16 promised to “deal with DACA with heart.” It’s “a very, very difficult subject for me,” he added. “You have some absolutely incredible kids—I would say mostly—they were brought in here in such a way. It’s a very, very tough subject.”
During a press conference Monday on Capitol Hill, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe told reporters he received assurances from Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly that the administration was not looking to dismantle DACA or target Dreamers for deportation. “My indication from General Kelly was absolutely not,” McAuliffe said when asked whether Kelly planned to go after the program. The Democratic governor, who is chairman of the National Governors Association, met with Kelly for nearly an hour on Sunday during a visit to Washington and expressed confidence “that is a policy that they won’t be pursuing.”
But Trump did not address DACA in his speech Tuesday night, and advocates for immigrants said they have received no further guidance on the White House’s plans for the program. “I think the president’s remarks were encouraging,” says Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO Education Fund, a national organization that promotes Latino participation in civil society. But “we need to see action.” Asked if he’d gotten any indications that action is pending, Vargas replied, “Not yet.”
“We’re still waiting for something specific,” says Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who along with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has introduced legislation to grant DACA recipients another three years of legal status in the country. “General Kelly’s been positive. The president’s statements are positive. It’s all leaning in the right direction, but the uncertainty is killing these kids and their families.” Indeed, on Wednesday, the day after the president’s address to Congress, a Mississippi newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger, reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had detained a 22-year-old DACA recipient after she spoke at a press conference focusing on recent deportations.
Many of Trump’s conservative supporters say he needs to live up to his campaign promise to end the DACA program and deport Dreamers, as well as other undocumented immigrants. King says the White House cannot restore the rule of law on immigration “and simultaneously grant amnesty to people who are unlawfully present in America.” Asked if continuing DACA amounts to amnesty, King replied, “Yes.”
But not all of those who support strict enforcement are making DACA a litmus test. “We’ve been hearing steadily that the president has said this specific group of illegal aliens, he wants to do something for them, although he’s never been specific about what it is,” says Mehlman. But the “the big picture,” he says, is that with his executive orders and stepped-up deportations, Trump “is enforcing laws that haven’t been enforced in a long time.”
“It looks to us that he is intent on making good on countless broken promises to the American public before he addresses this group,” says Mehlman. In the meantime, Dreamers will remain in limbo.
This article has been updated with the CNN report that a senior administration official told the network the president's comments were an intentional "misdirection play."