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President Donald Trump speaks to a gathering of mayors in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Trump follows many presidents who talked tough on immigration in State of Union

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As his administration prepares to lay out its framework for immigration reform in advance of his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he would consider a path to citizenship for young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.

Lawmakers have spent months grappling with the fate of these immigrants, so-called Dreamers, who were protected by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Trump announced in September that he would end the controversial program in March unless Congress acts.

Democrats had sought a clean vote on giving Dreamers permanent legal status, while Republicans have insisted on including broader immigration reforms. The stalemate led Democrats to force a brief government shutdown last weekend, at the end of which Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he intends to address immigration in the coming weeks.

According to Politico, Capitol Hill staffers were briefed Thursday on the immigration reform framework the White House believes can get 60 votes in the Senate. Next Tuesday night, Trump will deliver his State of the Union address and presumably make the sales pitch for that plan, which would offer a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million young immigrants while requiring $25 billion for a border defense system and significant changes to legal immigration.

Administration officials have dodged questions about Trump’s position on Dreamers, but the president told reporters Wednesday that he is open to granting them citizenship eventually.

“It’s going to happen at some point in the future, over a period of 10 to 12 years,” Trump said. “I think it’s a nice thing to have the incentive of after a period of years being able to become a citizen."

Some Republicans adamantly oppose citizenship and Democrats are unlikely to accept what Trump demands in return, so all sides will be watching closely when the president turns to immigration during his address.

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Aaron Kall, dean of students at the University of Michigan and editor of “The State of the Union Is... Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years,” expects the events of the last week will weigh heavily on Trump’s tone.

“The government shutdown and the divisiveness and everything as a result of that is probably going to lead him to drive a very hard bargain in the speech,” he said.

Trump will be speaking just over a week before the Feb. 8 deadline Congress set for itself in the continuing resolution to fund the government Monday. He will have a platform to deliver his closing argument that Democrats cannot match.

“The speech that will be watched by tens of millions of people will kind of be Trump explaining his positon,” Kall said. “He’s probably going to be as firm as possible because when you’re negotiating you don’t want to give up anything.”

A firm stance is what supporters of Trump’s immigration policies want to hear.

“We expect that he will stick with the positions he took during his campaign,” said Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, “that his emphasis is going to be on promoting the interests and security of the American people…and that he means to carry out his pledges.”

Mehlman added, however, that Trump’s positions and pledges on DACA and the plight of Dreamers have been erratic.

“He has been all over on this and that is one of the problems here that there needs to be consistent messaging from the White House,” he said.

Even if Trump sticks to the concept of a path to citizenship on Tuesday night, Mehlman said conservatives may still be reticent to embrace it. Too often, they have seen immigrants granted protections in exchange for promises of stricter controls that never materialize.

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“It’s kind of the case of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown promising she won’t pull it away” he said, “and I think the American public is tired of being Charlie Brown.”

According to Vanessa Beasley, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and editor of “Who Belongs in America: Presidents, Rhetoric & Immigration,” presidents often follow a pattern in State of the Union addresses of balancing lofty pro-immigrant rhetoric with calls for stricter immigration controls.

“On immigration, ‘sounding presidential’ in this type of speech usually involves some moderation between a tone of inclusiveness, i.e., we are a nation built by immigrants, and a more specific request for a specific type of policy argument for more exclusionary protocols,” she said by email Thursday.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton spoke of increased border patrols and inspections and announced an executive order denying federal contracts to companies that hire illegal immigrants.

“Let me be very clear about this,” he said immediately after that. “We are still a nation of immigrants; we should be proud of it. We should honor every legal immigrant here, working hard to be a good citizen, working hard to become a new citizen. But we are also a nation of laws.”

“We hear claims that immigrants are somehow bad for the economy, even though this economy could not function without them,” President George W. Bush said in 2006, before transitioning to the need to enforce immigration laws and secure the border.

In his 2013 address, President Barack Obama sketched out policy priorities that on the surface sound not far off from Trump’s: increased border security, citizenship only earned through the legal process, and reforms to attract “highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers.” He preceded it, however, with praise for the contributions immigrants make to society.

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“Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants,” Obama said.

“That’s one element I’ll be listening for,” Beasley said. “Will Trump attempt to strike this balance rhetorically, or will he only argue in one direction?”

In his first joint address to Congress last February, Trump did not seek that balance. Instead, he focused on crimes committed by immigrants, inviting family members of a teen and two police officers killed by undocumented immigrants as his guests.

“To any in Congress who do not believe we should enforce our laws, I would ask you this one question: What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or their loved one because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?” Trump asked.

He also announced the creation of an office at the Department of Homeland Security specifically devoted to victims of immigrants and promised to begin “construction of a great, great wall along our southern border.”

If Trump does offer citizenship for Dreamers, his words may echo Obama's sympathetic calls to protect them.

"Let's also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hard-working students in this country face another challenge: the fact that they aren't yet American citizens," Obama said in his 2012 address. Many were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation. "

What could make Trump different from past presidents who talked tough on immigration, according to Mehlman, is if he follows his rhetoric with action. Since his 2017 speech, there has been a massive drop in border apprehensions, immigration officers have conducted high-profile raids, and the Department of Justice has taken action against sanctuary cities.

“It’s not the words, it’s the deeds,” Mehlman said.

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For Americans who have been troubled by both Trump’s words and his deeds on immigration in the past, Kall said the State of the Union provides an opportunity to deliver a more positive message.

“There’s been a lot of skepticism from the audience about the motives of these policies,” he said.

This is especially true in light of the recent firestorm over Trump reportedly referring to African countries as “s***hole countries” during an Oval Office meeting on immigration.

Another thing to watch will be who gets invited to sit with First Lady Melania Trump as the president’s guests. Presidents Clinton and Reagan took time in addresses to highlight immigrants who succeeded in the U.S. Trump used his guests in 2017 to emphasize the violence committed by some foreigners.

This year, a few Democrats have already announced they are inviting Dreamers and family members of those impacted by Trump’s immigration policies as their guests. Kall predicted Trump will bring guests who counter that message.

“He’s going to want to set up a contrast like that,” he said.

The hardline position the president appears poised to take would face stiff resistance from Democrats, immigration activists, and many Republicans, but some GOP lawmakers indicated Wednesday that they share his goals.

“We need to do something about chain migration,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said. “If we’re going to continue to let people come to this country I think it ought to be based on meritorious system of some kind. Merit counts.”

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According to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, it is necessary to address the issue in a way that discourages future illegal immigration, and that will at least entail increased border security of some form.

“It’s important to point out here that no one wants to punish those who have been brought across the border illegally when they were children by no choice of their own,” Lee said. “It would be un-American and it would be cruel.”

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., whose RAISE Act Trump has endorsed, said he is open to a resolution that is “generous and humane” but also responsible. However, he did leave the door open to an extension that could push the hardest choices for lawmakers past the midterm elections.

“If it’s not the kind of solution I outlined earlier,” he said, “which gives permanent legal protections to those DACA permit holders on one hand in return for securing our border and ending chain migration, then I think we’ll probably have a fallback position of a much small proposition that maybe just gives one year of status in exchange for one year of funding for security on our southern and northern borders.”

Trump’s address Tuesday may offer the best opportunity to make that case to the public, but the impact of State of the Union pronouncements vary. Kall noted that presidents often follow the speech with travel intended to reinforce their priorities. In Trump’s case, that could mean a trip to San Diego to view his border wall prototypes.

“The problem is that with President Trump there’s just so much that happens through Twitter and through statements that there’s a real short attention span for any issue,” Kall said.

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