Trump says he’s open to legal pathway for undocumented immigrants

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signaled a new openness Tuesday to granting legal status to millions of unauthorized immigrants who have not committed serious crimes and then called on Congress to work with him on overhauling health care, and rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and military.

In an address to a joint session of Congress in which he defended the tumultuous early days of his presidency, Trump said he was eager to reach across partisan lines and put aside "trivial fights" in the interest of helping ordinary Americans. But even as he outlined a bold agenda, he was raising new questions about his own policy priorities and how he planned to achieve them.

In a conversation with news anchors just hours before he spoke, Trump broke from his tough immigration stance and said he was open to a the kind of broad overhaul that many Republicans and some of his core supporters have derided as "amnesty."

"The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides," the president told the TV anchors at the White House, according to people present during the discussion. Those present requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the private meeting.

The idea is a sharp break from the broad crackdown on immigrants in the country illegally that Trump ordered in his first weeks in office and the hard-line positions embraced by his core supporters that helped sweep him into the White House. The president hinted at the reversal just hours before he arrived on Capitol Hill to deliver his address to a joint session of Congress.

A move toward a comprehensive immigration overhaul would be a dramatic turnaround for the president, whose campaign rallies rang with shouts of "Build the wall!" on the Mexican border and who signed an executive order in January directing the deportation of any unauthorized immigrants who have committed a crime — whether or not they have been charged or convicted — or falsified a document. The standard could apply to virtually any one of the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

But the president did plan to use the speech to frame his policies, including his strict approach on immigration enforcement.


"By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone," Trump said.

In his potential shift, Trump went so far Tuesday as to raise the idea of granting citizenship to young unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children, one person present said. Such a change would go well beyond the temporary work permits President Barack Obama offered them through a 2012 executive order.

During his campaign, Trump criticized Obama's directive as an "illegal amnesty," and promised he would immediately end the program if elected. But he has delayed acting on the matter since taking office and expressed sympathy for its beneficiaries, sometimes known as Dreamers.

The White House did not dispute Trump's remarks to the television anchors, but Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary, said she had not witnessed the conversation so was unable to confirm it.

"The president has been very clear in his process that the immigration system is broken and needs massive reform, and he's made clear that he's open to having conversations about that moving forward," Sanders said. "Right now, his primary focus, as he has made over and over again, is border control and security at the border and deporting criminals from our country, and keeping our country safe, and those priorities have not changed."

The president's remarks about immigration came the day before Trump was to issue a new version of his executive order banning travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries and suspending the acceptance of refugees. The ban has been revised because of legal challenges.

[The real goal of Trump's executive orders: Reduce the number of immigrants in U.S.]

Trump, appearing in the well of the House, was to defend his record of the past tumultuous 39 days and lay out his priorities for the coming weeks and months. The address to lawmakers was expected to be short on specifics and laden with the populist themes that powered Trump's campaign.

The speech opened a new phase in a presidency that has so far been defined by unilateral actions and pronouncements and showed how much Trump now needs Congress to carry out the tax and health care overhauls and massive infrastructure rebuilding program he has promised.

The president planned to say he was eager to forge partnerships across partisan lines, even on some measures that appeared to be at odds with his promise to reduce government regulations and cut social spending.

"My administration wants to work with members in both parties to make child care accessible and affordable, to help ensure new parents have paid family leave, to invest in women's health, and to promote clean air and clean water and rebuild our military infrastructure," Trump planned to say.

He was expected to present himself as eager to put aside the vitriol of his campaign and his presidency — a message at odds with his time in office so far.

"The time for small thinking is over, the time for trivial fights is behind us," Trump planned to say. "From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations not burdened by our fears."

The speech also reflected the war Trump is fighting with himself and his inner circle. Even as Trump held out the possibility of legal status for millions of unauthorized immigrants, Melania Trump, the first lady, was hosting the families of victims of violent crime by such immigrants — a way of highlighting Trump's belief that immigrants who lack legal status pose a grave threat to Americans and should be feared and removed, not embraced.

Trump has yet to propose major legislation to achieve his goals, with members of his Cabinet and senior staff divided over key elements of tax and health care plans and congressional Republicans split on how to structure them. By this point in his presidency, Obama had established an active — if not always friendly — working relationship with a Democratic-led Congress, having signed into law a $787 billion package of spending and tax cuts intended to stabilize the economy.

Democrats said Trump was making grandiose promises without laying out specific steps for achieving them, and doubling down on steps they argued had harmed Americans since he took office.

[Trump calls Obama's clean water rule 'horrible, horrible']


Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Democrat, argued that Trump's address was "far less important than past presidential addresses, because his speeches don't indicate what he's actually going to do."

To write the speech, Trump turned to the same top advisers who helped develop his inaugural address: Stephen Miller, his senior policy adviser, and Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist.

Miller and Bannon, both architects of the president's tough immigration policies, were responsible for shaping the dark themes of the president's speech on Inauguration Day.

But White House officials said Trump wanted to offer a more positive vision for the country's future in Tuesday's congressional address. They said the president drew inspiration for the speech from the frequent "listening sessions" he held at the White House in recent days with health care officials, law enforcement officers, coal miners, union representatives and others.

Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush contributed reporting.