Early on, Trump seemed to be striving for an almost Reaganesque note, speaking with restraint and an unusual display of softer emotions. Though he sometimes ad-libs awkwardly while speaking from a script, Trump remained rigid in both elocution and posture Tuesday.
“America proudly welcomes millions of lawful immigrants that enrich our society and contribute to our nation, but all Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal migration,” Trump said. “This is a humanitarian crisis: a crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul.”
He also eschewed any discussion of his wall or any attacks on Democrats until the latter half of the speech. He noted that the Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer had supported a border fence in the past. He also replied to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has called the proposed wall immoral, without mentioning her name.
“Then why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences, and gates around their homes?” Trump said. “They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside. The only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized.”
This was the tone for the final moments of the speech. “The president has chosen fear,” Pelosi said during the Democratic rebuttal, and it’s hard to imagine Trump disagreeing. Criticizing Democrats for not funding the wall, he listed a series of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants, a tactic that dates back to his days on the campaign.
Notably, Trump seemed to implicitly rule out using an emergency declaration to build the wall with the military. “My administration is doing everything in our power to help those impacted by the situation, but the only solution is for Democrats to pass a spending bill that defends our borders and reopens the government,” Trump said.
In making the case that there is an acute crisis at the border, Trump faces three major obstacles.
The first is that there’s no obvious change at the border that makes the current moment more serious than six or 18 months ago. While illegal immigration to the United States is rising, it remains well below the recent peak, in 2000. Before the election, Trump drew attention to a “caravan” of migrants walking north through Mexico toward the United States, but that march largely dissipated as it neared the border, and the number of migrants involved—reportedly about 4,000—is small in comparison with the total number of unauthorized immigrants entering the country.
The second obstacle is a confusing explanation of the humanitarian problem. While the president noted the dangers facing migrants who try to enter the U.S., especially women and children, he didn’t explain how hardening the border or building a wall would solve that crisis. The measures he is proposing treat symptoms without dealing with the underlying causes, especially violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle.