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President Trump Attempts To Change Immigration Narrative After Reversing Family Separation


This was the week that President Trump backed down on his policy of separating families accused of crossing the U.S. border illegally. And today, he tried to shift the focus by returning to a familiar message on immigration.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're gathered today to hear directly from the American victims of illegal immigration. You know, you hear the other side. You never hear this side. You don't know what's going on.

CORNISH: President Trump made those comments during an event at the White House meant to highlight victims of crimes committed by people in the country illegally. NPR's Sarah McCammon joins us now from the White House. And, Sarah, tell us a little more about what happened today and what the president's message was.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Well, he's going back to one of his original campaign talking points here. I think we all remember in his 2015 announcement speech how he raised the specter of crime and drugs coming over the border, described some Mexican immigrants as rapists, that comment that remains really controversial and divisive today. He was surrounded by family members holding pictures of their murdered loved ones. And he claimed that the media has overlooked these families and said he wanted to bring them to the White House to tell their stories. Here's Laura Wilkerson from Texas, whose son, Josh, was murdered in 2010.


LAURA WILKERSON: As - and everyone standing up here, none of our kids had a minute to say goodbye. We weren't lucky enough to be separated for five days or 10 days. We're separated permanently. Any time we want to see or be close to our kids, we go to the cemetery.

MCCAMMON: And we heard that theme over and over from these families at the White House today and the president. So this was pretty clearly a response to the debate over family separation at the border, which, of course, was triggered by the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy for illegal border crossings. And the president also read off some statistics listing off the numbers of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

CORNISH: What does the data say about crimes committed by people in the country illegally?

MCCAMMON: Well, it's true that undocumented immigrants commit crimes, sometimes violent crimes. So do U.S. citizens and other people who are here legally. And at least a couple of major reports, including one from the conservative-leaning Cato Institute, have concluded that immigrants actually commit murder and sexual assault at lower rates than native-born Americans. The crime rate's especially low for legal immigrants. But even those here illegally have lower rates of violent crime in that study, which looked at data from Texas.

One caveat - undocumented immigrants were convicted of certain crimes at higher rates - gambling, kidnapping, smuggling and vagrancy. But those made up a small fraction of overall crime. And another study this year found that crime rates appeared to fall when the number of undocumented immigrants in a community went up.

CORNISH: In recent days, the president has repeatedly called on Congress to, as he put it, fix the problem and pass immigration legislation. Now, House Republicans were trying to vote on a measure next week. But today, the president seems to have changed his tune. What does he want from Congress?

MCCAMMON: Right. Again and again, he's said, Congress has to solve this. But today, he tweeted, Republicans should stop wasting their time on immigration until after we elect more senators and congressmen/women in November.

So I asked a White House official about that. Does the president want a vote next week? And that official indicated to me the president wants Congress to move forward soon, said that the president wants Congress to do its job. I asked if that means taking a vote, and the official said, I don't know how they pass a bill without it unless they can will it into existence. The official said, President Trump wants Congress to act soon.

And the reality is that what - regardless of what the president says, House Republicans need to vote on this. They risk losing face if they don't bring it to the floor. House speaker Paul Ryan has promised a vote on immigration, and moderate Republicans have been working hard to cut a deal on the issue. So they need to show their constituents they can force their leadership to vote on it. So a vote is still expected next week.

CORNISH: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Sarah, thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.