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Trump boosts hopes of immigration hardliners by sticking to tough talk on wall

Conservatives hungry for tighter immigration laws breathed easier on Tuesday night after President Donald Trump called again for a border wall, squashing concerns that he shared the conciliatory approach being taken by other Republicans negotiating border security.

While immigration hawks would have preferred some specific enforcement proposals, Trump’s State of the Union speech delivered the same message on immigration and security that he promised on the presidential campaign trail in 2016.

“The speech was vintage President Trump, no talk about amnesty, but rather a focus on the most important stakeholders in U.S. immigration policy — the American people,” said RJ Hauman, the government relations director at FAIR who is in regular discussions with the administration.

Conservative immigration groups -- Federation for American Immigration Reform and Center for Immigration Studies, among them -- had been increasingly worried over the last several weeks about the direction of negotiations among lawmakers and between Congress and the White House.

That was especially true after Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, took the issue on, fueling worry that Trump was shifting away from the immigration posture drafted by senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, the architect of some of the White House’s stiffest measures.

While they might have preferred Trump offer specifics in his speech, such as a mandatory worker verification program and cuts to family migration, it was what he didn’t say that these conservative activists cheered; Trump did not offer protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought to America illegally as children.

Kushner had floated the idea of swapping protections for that group, known as Dreamers, for money needed to build the border wall, unnerving conservative activists.

For the White House, the State of the Union address was a chance to reset the narrative after weeks of embarrassing staff leaks, a shutdown fight, and ongoing special counsel probe. Early on in his speech, Trump sought to strike a unifying tone of bipartisanship intended to “bridge old divisions” and “heal old wounds.”

He even inspired multiple standing ovations from Democrats, and cheers from female lawmakers dressed in white out of solidarity, when he highlighted the record number of women elected to serve in the Congress.

“We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution -- and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good,” Trump said.

But when Trump got to the immigration portion of Tuesday’s speech, he returned to more hawkish talking points that he has used successfully to whip up supporters at rallies and motivate his base. He blamed illegal immigration for reduced jobs and strained schools and hospitals. He warned of human traffickers and sex traffickers smuggling thousands of vulnerable young girls into the United States.

He blamed illegal immigration for increased crime despite evidence that says otherwise.

“This is a moral issue,” Trump said. “The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial well being of all Americans. We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens.”

While preaching “unity”, Trump’s remarks on immigration were in many ways pointed at Democrats, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, who is in regular discussions with the administration. He turned Pelosi’s characterization of the border wall as “immoral,” charging that an unsecured border is a “moral” issue and blamed it for contributing to America’s opioid problems.

But one comment about allowing people to come to the United States legally in “the largest numbers ever” raised panic from supporters like Vaughan who questioned Trump’s commitment to protecting American jobs.

“That is the kind of off-the-cuff comment that gives people like me heart failure,” Vaughan said. “It’s contrary to the other, planned, part of the speech and makes me wonder about his commitment to protecting the livelihoods of the working people he wants to champion.”

Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, said Trump laid out “his best case yet” for more fencing in strategic areas, but voiced concerns that he didn’t raise their priorities to end the diversity lottery program and cut family migration numbers.

“And while focusing on stopping and catching illegal migrants, he failed to call for mandatory E-Verify which is necessary to cut off the jobs that are the main magnet drawing them here,” Beck said.

Trump touted his work so-called ‘‘angel families’‘ who had lost loved ones in crimes committed by ‘‘criminal illegal aliens.’‘ He promised federal agents that the Trump administration would always support them.

And he took a jab at some of his most vocal Democratic critics -- Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez -- in calling New York a “a notorious sanctuary state.”

Inside the chamber, Democrats sat stoically as Trump outlined his case for a border wall while many Republicans stood and cheered.

“Simply put, walls work and walls save lives,” Trump said.

But Trump stopped short of calling for a national emergency that would have allowed him to build the wall using defense funding. He only promised that it would be built, somehow.

“In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall -- but the proper wall never got built,” Trump said. “I’ll get it built.”

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.