STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump's speech to Congress last night included an offer to work on immigration reform. In particular, he favored a shift in the methods for legal immigration.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible as long as we focus on the following goals - to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation's security and to restore respect for our laws.
INSKEEP: Let's examine what the president said and what it might really mean. NPR's Joel Rose is covering this story.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is the change the president explicitly favored in this speech?
ROSE: Well, the president talked about, or called for, a new, merit-based system that would admit only immigrants who are able to support themselves financially. He says our current system is holding down wages for our poorest workers and costing taxpayers billions of dollars, although I should say there are many economists who say illegal immigration actually has a small but positive effect on the economy overall.
The president specifically mentioned a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences to back up his claim on the cost to taxpayers. There was a study from last year that found that immigrants cost state and local governments more money than native-born residents. But that same study also found that the children of immigrants actually produce much more benefit to the government than either their parents or the native-born and that the effects of immigration on wages or employment levels of the native-born are actually quite small.
INSKEEP: OK. So the president is saying he wants people to come in who have skills, essentially, who can support themselves, which is really interesting. Our colleague Tom Gjelten wrote a whole book about this. When they reformed the immigration system in the 1960s, people talked about letting in immigrants based on their skills. And that was rejected then because of fear that it would change the racial makeup of the country too much, so they went for family reunification instead. That's what they've got now. This is what the president is proposing to change or saying he's willing to work on changing. But what is not on the table explicitly in what the president said?
ROSE: Well, you know, earlier in the day yesterday, Trump had a meeting with television anchors where he said that the time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides. And previous attempts at compromise have included a path to citizenship for at least some of the millions of immigrants who are already living in the country illegally.
But Trump did really not talk about those details at all in his speech. He sort of stuck to the hard line on immigration that he took during the campaign. And, you know, immigration rights activists were pretty skeptical about what he said during the speech. They say talk is cheap, that they're more concerned about the policies Trump has already put in place, including an executive order that greatly increases the priorities for possible deportation, which has led to a lot of fear and anxiety in immigrant communities.
INSKEEP: And the president also talked about a new program that he said would help the victims of crimes committed by immigrants who were in the country illegally. Let's listen to some of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
TRUMP: The office is called VOICE, Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement.
TRUMP: We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media and silenced by special interests.
INSKEEP: One of the more hard-edged moments there.
ROSE: That's right. The president was talking about an office that he called for in one of his executive orders on immigration. And those were Democrats who were booing in the background. They argue that Trump is trying to stir up fear of immigrants when in fact immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than the native born.
Of course, the president and his supporters would say that that is small comfort to the victims of crimes that are committed by immigrants. And the president invited several members of the family - family members of victims to attend last night's speech, which is something he also did pretty frequently during the campaign.
INSKEEP: In the time we've got left, let's listen to a little bit of the Democratic response. One of the Democratic responses was in Spanish. Another, in English, came from former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
STEVE BESHEAR: President Trump has all but declared war on refugees and immigrants. We can protect America without abandoning our principles and our moral obligation to help those fleeing war and terror, without tearing families apart.
INSKEEP: How are Democrats approaching this?
ROSE: Well, Democrats had two responses, as you say, Steve Beshear, the former governor of Kentucky, and then a second response by an activist named Astrid Silva who is a DREAMer, meaning she was brought to the country illegally as a young girl. But she's temporarily protected from deportation by an Obama-era program known as DACA. And she was very critical of the president's speech last night. Silva said, quote, "President Trump is taking us back to some of the darkest times in our history, criminalizing anyone who is different."
INSKEEP: OK, NPR's Joel Rose, thanks very much.
ROSE: You're welcome, Steve.
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