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Immigrants to Be in Spotlight at State of Union

30 Jan

By Louise Radnofsky, Siobhan Hughes and Kristina Peterson

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump plans Tuesday to outline in his State of the Union address a broad agenda for the coming year, but he is also expected to wade into a more immediate political showdown: an immigration deal.

Lawmakers were no closer this week to reaching an agreement on immigration since the impasse led to a three-day partial government shutdown earlier this month. But with all eyes on the president Tuesday night, the address offers the White House an opportunity to build momentum toward a resolution—or to set it back.

Republican hard-liners have voiced strong opposition to Mr. Trump’s plan last week to offer a path to citizenship to the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by their parents.

“I can imagine some of my friends around me in a standing ovation, but I can imagine also some of my friends sitting with arms crossed, scowling,” said Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), one of the most conservative voices in his party on immigration.

Mr. King and other GOP lawmakers said they wanted to pull the president, a fellow Republican, back to the kind of immigration policies Mr. Trump advocated on the campaign trail, though Mr. King allowed that he could be hoping for “a little more than I’m going to hear.”

Democrats have already signaled skepticism toward the White House’s outreach on the issue. “What I would look for is someone who can demonstrate empathy,” Rep. Joe Crowley (D., N.Y.) said. “I’m not holding my breath.”

Mr. Trump is expected to urge lawmakers to support a framework for an immigration deal that his administration outlined last week.

In exchange for providing a way for the young immigrants to become citizens, it calls for limits on family-based immigration, an end to the visa lottery program that offers visas to people from countries that are underrepresented in the U.S., and an allocation of $25 billion to expand the barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The White House’s proposal has elicited criticism from both the president’s own conservative base and immigrant advocates. Some advisers who had counseled the president to urge reasonableness to secure an immigration deal now expect the president may simply aim to show he tried to find a compromise.

“We cover immigration,” said Mr. Trump, referring to the speech on Monday. “It’s got to be bipartisan, because the Republicans really don’t have the votes to get it done in any other way…. But hopefully the Democrats will join us, or enough of them will join us.”

Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers have pushed him to bridge the gap between right and left, encouraging him to note in his speech that the U.S. is a “a nation of immigrants” and “a nation of laws” to deflect accusations of racism or cruelty.

The stakes for the president are expected to be evident in the seats around him. Dozens of the young immigrants are slated to be in the audience, most invited by Democratic lawmakers determined to protect them from deportation by the administration.

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R., N.D.), one of Mr. Trump’s earliest congressional supporters, plans to bring Tommy Fisher, president of Fisher Industries, according to his office. Fisher Sand & Gravel Co. was one of the companies awarded a contract to develop a prototype for building a wall along the southern border.

Beyond immigration, the president is expected to take a victory lap on the state of the U.S. economy, highlight the recently passed tax overhaul and reaffirm his goal to get “fair and reciprocal” trade deals.

On national security, he is planning to tout a vision of “peace through strength,” warning of the nuclear threat in North Korea and heralding gains made against Islamic State during his first year.

Mr. Trump is also expected to make a pitch for an infrastructure program that the White House has said it would like to take up next.

The president set the current showdown in motion in September, when he ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that shielded the Dreamers, citing executive overreach by the administration of his Democratic predecessor. He gave Congress until March 5 to fashion a replacement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has promised to bring an immigration bill to the floor on Feb. 8, when the government next runs out of money, if the issue hasn’t already been resolved through negotiations. He made that commitment a week ago to end the shutdown that was spurred by the immigration stalemate.

In addition to the young immigrants, Democratic lawmakers have invited guests who have parents or spouses who were deported, as part of a broader argument that they shouldn’t be used as pawns or hostages in congressional negotiations.

Immigrant advocates said they plan to hold a mock funeral procession outside the Capitol on Tuesday night to protest the administration’s framework.

“This proposal is a non-starter,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, a Maryland-based group that plans to participate in the protest. “It is so radically anti-immigrant and has the fingerprints of the most racist hard-liners in the administration that it cannot be taken seriously.”

Some GOP lawmakers said they hope the president moves closer to the approach he took on immigration during his 2016 presidential campaign.

“I have concerns, and my main focus is we need to do what is consistent with the election of 2016,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) in a Fox News interview Saturday. “The American people voted loud and clear: border-security wall, end chain migration, stop the visa lottery, deal with this crazy sanctuary-city policy—that has to be the focus of legislation and then oh, by the way, we will also deal with the DACA folks.”

Some lawmakers have said they prefer a more narrow compromise legislation from lawmakers in both chambers that would combine legal protections for the young immigrants with more funding for border security and some changes to how visas are allocated.

One House bipartisan group, known as the Problem Solvers Caucus, offered its own proposal Monday that is similar to a proposal from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D., Ill.).

The House group’s proposal, among other provisions, would offer young immigrants a path to citizenship over 10 to 12 years and provide $1.6 billion for wall funding and additional border security money.