Trump stated that immigration enriches the country and “I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally,” he said.
The words “in the largest numbers ever” weren’t in his prepared remarks. He has previously endorsed policies aimed at cutting legal immigration by as much as half, by reducing family-based green cards, limiting work visas, eliminating the diversity lottery and lowering refugee quotas.
Trump however, stood by what he said.
“Yes, because we need people in our country because our unemployment numbers are so low,” he said in an interview with regional news organizations after he was asked whether he favors a change in policy to expand legal immigration, according to a reporter for The Advocate of Louisiana.
Immigration opponents are a mainstay of Trump’s political base, and the president’s State of the Union aside caught their attention.
“My first reaction was alarm. My second reaction, quickly thereafter, was this was the kind of empty superlative that the president inserts practically into every other sentence,” stated Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports reducing US immigration, legal or not.
It remains unclear on how the president prefers to increase legal immigration. Some Republicans have proposed to raise green-card limits for skilled workers, for instance, and the president has said that he wants a “merit-based” immigration system. He has also endorsed Republican legislation that would reduce overall immigration to the US by 50% in 10 years, according to authors.
Early last year, Trump rejected a bipartisan Senate bill that included $25bn in border wall funding and a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers—undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children. Trump insisted that it include cuts to legal immigration that Democrats opposed. The measure failed in the Senate and let to the standoff that caused the longest government shutdown in history.
“If the White House follows through on this it’s going to blow up in his face,” Krikorian said. “The president has said he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and his base would stay with him, and that’s probably true. But this is one thing that he won’t be able to get away with.”
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.