"There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream," Donald Trump announced in his first State of the Union speech, but they were hollow words for millions of immigrants in the country, not to mention possible future applicants.
In his Tuesday night speech the president doubled down on his proposal to increase border security while cutting legal immigration in return protect the so-called "Dreamers" from deportation.
But immigrant advocates, as well as their Democrat supporters in Congress, said the president's proposal was a non-starter. With the congressional clock ticking down towards a March deadline to decide the fate of 1.8 million young immigrants brought by their parents to the country when they were children, immigrant groups said the prospects for a political deal were not good.
Echoing his "America First" policy, Trump sought to redefine the label "Dreamers," which has come to represent the best and brightest of young immigrants. "Americans are Dreamers too," he said.
Trump's proposal, announced last week, includes offering a path to citizenship in exchange for $25 billion to build the wall on the border with Mexico and strengthen border security, limit legal immigration, cancel a visa lottery system and accelerate deportations, among other controversial measures.
"We firmly reject the president's plan, we are not going to sacrifice our parents who have already sacrificed so much for us," said Juan Manuel Guzmán, director of governmental affairs with United We Dream (UWD), the main organization of Dreamers in the United States,
"The plan presented by the White House and defended tonight by the president is radical and supremacist," he added, speaking shortly after the speech ended.
Dreamers fear that, if Trump's framework of immigration principles is approved, the federal government will have the necessary resources to put into operation a powerful deportation machine that will have, among its objectives, the other nine million undocumented people living in the country, including their parents.
"We did not expect a change" in the president's position, says Gabriela Pacheco, a Guatemalan-born immigrant leader and director of programs at TheDream.US. "Trump has always been the way he is with immigrants, from the day he announced his candidacy in June 2015. He talks badly about the countries where we come from and has a perception that we are less."
Regarding Trump's immigration plan, Pacheco said that if approved by Congress, "this is going to get worse ... our families will be left unprotected and that's not right."
Trump invites gang victims
Trump's speech offered no new details or a sign of willingness to compromise. Instead, he stuck to his now familiar anti-immigration rhetoric, using the death of two Hispanic teenagers at the hands of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) to paint an ugly picture of the destruction in society caused by young Hispanic gang members, reminding his audience that immigration is responsible for crime and violence that exists in the country.
The parents of the victims were among the White House guests in the audience and received one of the longest standing ovations of the evening.
Also a guest in the audience was Celestino Martinez, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) agent, who was hailed by Trump for his efforts to tackle MS-13 gangs in Long Island, New York.
Trump also used the argument that the threat of terrorism made tighter immigration policy was vital.
“In recent weeks, two terrorist attacks in New York were made possible by the visa lottery and chain migration. In the age of terrorism, these programs present risks we can no longer afford," he said.
Fact checkers pointed out that Trump's statement is only half true. The suspects in the two recent terror attacks entered the country thanks to a family connection and the diversity visa lottery program, but both appear to have been radicalized well after they entered the United States.
"President Trump had an opportunity to set a bipartisan environment that balanced security with compassion. Instead, he began and ended the immigration segment of his speech with murder and terrorism by a few outlier immigrants," wrote Ali Noorani, director of the National Immigration Forum.
4/ Instead, Trump framed his comments around vicious gangsters and violent terrorists. He wanted America to see immigrants as threats, takers. He did not want America to see immigrants as givers, protectors, as Americans.— Ali Noorani (@anoorani) January 31, 2018
The other nine million
Immigrant organizations also stressed that the president's plan only contemplates a path to citizenship for those 1.8 million Dreamers and ignores the other nine million undocumented immigrants also seeking to live the American dream.
That is despite the fact that, public views of immigrants have moved in a more positive direction over the past few years, according to recent data from the Pew Center.
"Most Americans say immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents (65%), rather than burden the country by taking jobs and other resources," the Pew Center said on Tuesday.
An overwhelming majority -74% - "favor granting permanent legal status to immigrants brought here illegally as children, while just 37% favor substantially expanding the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border."
Another Washington DC group, America's Voice, said Trump's position would depend on polling of his mostly white male political base. He will not back down on his immigration policy, the group said in a statement, "as long as he continues to believe that he has the backing of 30% of the most extremist, anti-immigrant and recalcitrant Republicans who took him to the White House in the 2016."
Maribel Hastings, the group's executive advisor, said: The coming days and weeks will be crucial for the future of Dreamers and immigrants in general ... and also for President Trump and the Republicans."
Pro-immigrant members of Congress continued to insist on Tuesday that the president's plan, as it stands, is a non-starter. "I am still hopeful, but I don’t see this Congress and this President coming to an agreement that prevents the deportation of the Dreamers," said Illinois congressman, Luis Gutierrez.
"The White House agenda is to gut legal immigration in exchange for allowing some of the Dreamers to live here ... the Dreamers themselves have said they do not want legal status if it comes at the expense of others who will suffer more as part of the bargain. The speech did nothing to bring the pro- and anti-immigrant sides closer together."
"It seems that the president does not care about the chaos caused by his changing positions on immigration," said Jorge Mario Cabrera, director of communications for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). "Trump treats young immigrants (dreamers) and the Latino community the same way as a domestic abuser who violently attacks his partner and then says, 'I love you.' His lack of seriousness is irresponsible. "
The president's plan shows that Trump "unfortunately continues to listen to the whispers of white supremacists who do not hide their hatred of immigrants," he added.
"For the Trump administration we are a nuisance and they are doing everything possible to create a hostile society that forces immigrants to hide more or self-deport," he went on. "It is sad that he does not recognize that, thanks to the contributions of immigrants, this country is great, and that on our shoulders we carry the glorious future of this nation," he added.
Newly-elected Virginia House of Delegates member, Elizabeth Guzmán, who delivered the Spanish language response to Trump's speech on behalf of the Democratic party, criticized the president for replacing "equality with intolerance," and "mutual respect with racism."
The Trump "machinery"
While the president's plan may not be able to immediately deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants, or nine million if the Dreamers are allowed to stay, but Arizona immigration attorney, Ezequiel Hernández, warned that "the machinery that goes with it, what Trump is asking for, would be worse every month in the years to come."
Hernández said Trump's plan, if approved, would close the door on finding a solution for the other nine million by exhausting whatever political capital there is in Congress on the issue. "There will be no leverage at all," he said. "It will seal the fate of all the undocumented people who have waited for years for an opportunity to legalize their stay in the United States."
Each year successively more people will fall into the system, "caught up by Trump's deportation machinery," he added. Furthermore, most of those would receive a 10 year ban on re-entry. "And there is no cure for that, unless the Congress changes the Law, " he said.
Lilia Velasquez, adjunct professor at the faculty of law at the University of California at San Diego, expressed similar concerns. "If extraordinary powers are granted to agents of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deport immigrants, millions of people's rights will be affected," she said.
( Additional reporting by David Adams)