Trump hits a host of hot-button issues in Texas
WASHINGTON – From immigration and border security to infrastructure and disaster response, President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address hit a host of hot-button issues that were felt deep in the heart of Texas.
Even as Trump called for unity, the symbolic centerpiece of his speech was the renewed call for a “great wall” along the Mexican border, the central barrier to deal on immigration and “Dreamers” – the children of illegal immigrants who the president acknowledges find themselves in the country through no fault of their own.
“The first pillar of our framework generously offers a path to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants who were brought here by their parents at a young age,” Trump said. “Those who meet education and work requirements, and show good moral character, will be able to become full citizens of the United States.”
But Trump’s second pillar, he said, “means building a great wall on the Southern border.” Rounding out the four pillars of Trump’s immigration program are new restrictions on legal immigration – another flashpoint in the in the political battle that threatens to shut down the government again next week.
The rancor surrounding the issue was on display in the hours leading up to the speech, as Dreamers from all over the country, including Texas, converged on the U.S. Capitol to demonstrate their plight.
Among them was Houston Dreamer Cesar Espinosa, founder of an immigrants’ rights organization named FIEL, who arrived as a guest of U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. San Antonio Democrat Joaquin Castro also hosted a Dreamer, though he declined to give her name to protect her identify.
With the number of Dreamers in the chamber multiplying, one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, called on the U.S. Capitol Police to check IDs and arrest any “illegal aliens in attendance.”
No arrests were reported. But there were hard feelings.
“The Amnesty Lobby and their millions (were) out in full force,” said Maria Espinoza of the Remembrance Project, a Houston-based organization that highlights crimes committed by people living in the U.S. illegally.
But for Julian Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary under President Obama, Trump’s speech was a marker. “One year into the most divisive administration in recent memory, we are at a defining moment for Latino political engagement,” he said at a Capitol Hill rally for Dreamers.
Meanwhile, Houston U.S. Rep. Al Green joined about a half dozen other members of the Congressional Black Caucus in boycotting the speech, calling it a matter of “principle.”
But the speech was welcomed by Texas Republicans, including Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, one of the chief negotiators on an immigration pact that Congress hopes to reach by a March 5 deadline set by the president for ending the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Despite the mounting tensions, which have already led to one government shutdown, Cornyn listed Trump-backed initiatives on infrastructure, criminal justice reform and immigration as potential areas of bipartisan cooperation.
“The president has laid out a framework that is exceedingly generous to the DACA recipients, something that has surprised a lot of people in its generosity,” Cornyn said. “But he’s also said we need to make sure this doesn’t happen again, and that’s why the border security and the enforcement piece is an important part of the puzzle. It’s going to take everybody giving something.”
Trump, who has called for “heart” in dealing with the Dreamers, laid out the case for what he sees as a compromise on immigration, one that would provide immediate relief to some 124,000 Dreamers in Texas.
But the price, $25 billion for border security, including walls and fences, is more than many immigrant activists and Democrats want to pay.
“I am bewildered by the oversight of the negative impact that a border wall has on the 15 million people who call the southern border region their home,” said U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela of Brownsville. “The apparent acceptance of the border wall and disregard of the impact on border communities demonstrates a fundamental lack of thought, logic, and empathy.”
Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Borders Communities Coalition, rejected Trump’s proposal outright. “We should not be using border communities and the lives of Dreamers as bargaining chips to score cheap political points,” he said.
But Trump’s plan has garnered support from at least one Hispanic civil rights group, the Corpus Christi-based League of United Latin American Citizens. Cornyn cited their support as a sign of hope for Trump’s plan, which would create a path to citizenship for as many as 1.8 million Dreamers.
Cornyn said the offer should entice Democrats, whose leader, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, recently rescinded his previous offer to go along with Trump’s wall. “My guess is if they’re serious about coming up with a solution for …. young adults who would benefit from the president’s proposal, they’ll come back to the table,” he said.
Trump also made the case for new limits on legal migration, a central plank of his nativist “America First” agenda.
“Struggling communities, especially immigrant communities, will also be helped by immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American Workers and American Families,” Trump said. “So tonight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, color, and creed. My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans - to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream.
“Because Americans are dreamers too.”
Trump’s proposed immigration limits already have run afoul of Democrats in Congress. But the White House plan mirrors provisions in a House bill co-sponsored by Houston-area Republican Michael McCaul that restricts family migration and ends a visa lottery system for nations that are underrepresented in the U.S. immigration system.
“We need to close the legal loopholes,” McCaul said in a Fox News interview Tuesday.
A more narrowly-drawn bill backed by San Antonio Republican Will Hurd, who represents a heavily Latino border district in West Texas, calls for enhancing border security technology and surveillance, as opposed to a physical barrier. Unlike McCaul’s bill, it also provides a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
In a venue that is traditionally thematic and light on details, Trump laid out an ambitious $1.5 trillion federal infrastructure plan, also tapping into state, local and private funds. “We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land,” Trump said. “And we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit.”
He also sought to strike a unifying tone of optimism with allusions to the heroes of Hurricane Harvey and other national traumas.
“Tonight, I want to talk about what kind of future we are going to have, and what kind of nation we are going to be,” Trump said. “All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family.”
One of his invited guests in the First Lady’s box was Jon Bridgers, who founded the Cajun Navy that responded to flooding after Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana last summer.
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, also brought another Harvey hero into the chamber: Businessman Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, who opened his Gallery Furniture to shelter Houstonians displaced by Harvey.
Stephen Willeford, one of the heroes of last November’s shooting rampage at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, also arrived as an invited guest of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, and Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican.
Trump also gave a friendly nod to an energy sector that has long fueled Texas’ economy. “We have ended the war on American Energy,” he said. “We have ended the war on clean coal. We are now very proudly an exporter of energy to the world.”
Bill Lambrecht contributed to this report