Listening to President Donald Trump address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, it would have been easy to be taken aback by his dignified tone and at times lofty language. He spoke of freedom. He spoke of dreams. He did not, in deep contrast to his inauguration address, deploy the word “carnage.” On Tuesday night, Trump even struck a note of optimism about, yes, immigration reform.
“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible,” Trump said, “as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws.”
That utterance alone might have shocked anyone who’s paid attention to Trump’s anti-immigration crusade of the last year and a half. But even before the speech itself, Trump had sent shock waves throughout the country when he floated his openness to legislation offering some form of legal status for undocumented immigrants.
Once the speech was under way, he made multiple references to such a package. “If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades,” Trump said. And it’s true, immigration reform—typically defined as a package immigration-law update that would include a plan for offering citizenship or legal status to the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants—has repeatedly tripped up Congress. Immigration reform under not just a Republican president but a Trump administration at that? It’s enough to make a person’s head spin.
But it’s important to examine the real substance of Trump’s remarks on immigration Tuesday. Because behind his sanded-down rhetoric and beyond those vague references to an immigration-reform package, there was no deviation from standard anti-immigrant Trump to be found. Trump offered nothing of substance on the topic of immigration reform. And his one specific policy proposal was totally in line with the punitive anti-immigration crackdowns of the last month. Trump called for the creation of a body called “VOICE,” or Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. The office would be housed in the Department of Homeland Security and focus on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
“We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests,” Trump said, going on to detail the stories of those who’ve been killed by undocumented immigrants. Trump then told the story of Jamiel Shaw, a father whose teenage son was killed by an undocumented immigrant in a random act of alleged gang violence. Shaw, who became a campaign fixture on Trump’s team, has been trotted out at nearly major immigration address Trump given in the last 20 months as a politician.