In his first State of the Union address, President Donald Trump made it seem like his administration had achieved far more than it had, from citing historic unemployment rates for African-Americans and “Hispanics” to “massive tax cuts” for the middle class. But it was his remarks on immigration that had advocates calling Tuesday’s speech a “dishonest sales pitch.”
Trump’s proposed immigration framework, which he said Tuesday includes a 12-year-long pathway to citizenship for just 1.8 million of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States, is being used as “ransom” in a deal that “would endanger the lives of millions of immigrant families in the U.S.,” according to the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI).
“Hidden behind Trump’s proposed ‘compromise’ is a threat to ramp up deportations and other enforcement tactics that mirror the often deadly police raids in African American communities during the darkest days of our nation’s history,” Opal Tometi, executive director of BAJI, said in a statement. “Like all Black people living in this country, Black immigrants disproportionately experience racial discrimination in the form of mass criminalization, economic disenfranchisement and immigrant detention and deportation. These proposed deportation efforts, emboldened by the resurgence of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, will only continue to fuel race-based vitriol and violence in a country already grappling with the realities of deep societal divisions.”
Trump seemed to encourage those divisions by pitting Americans against immigrants, at one point saying that “open borders” have allowed “millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans.”
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Perhaps even more disturbing, the president pitted Black Americans against Latino immigrants with his speech. This was illustrated by Trump’s focus on the family of Kayla Cuevas, 16, who was killed by MS-13 gang members on Long Island in 2016, along with her friend Nisa Mickens, 15. Cuevas’ mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, attended the State of the Union, along with family members. Rodriguez, however, told the New York Times that her participation was not about immigration, but rather an attempt to highlight the lack of resources for kids in need. (Trump has routinely failed to mention the murder of three immigrant teens who were murdered by MS-13 members one month after Cuevas’ death.)
Trump “cruelly” used the families’ grief “to manipulate and derail the conversation on immigration policy,” according to BAJI, and while decrying gang violence, “he is actively seeking to end [Temporary Protected Status] and reverse immigration policies designed to protect families from conflict happening in their home countries.”
For State of the Union attendee Nery Martinez, a Salvadoran Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipient, Trump’s remarks about unity do nothing to protect families like his from being separated by U.S. immigration policy. “I feel the president is careless about families,” Martinez told Rewire in a phone interview hours before the State of the Union address. “He is trying to divide our families. He says his first priority is Americans, but it doesn’t look like that because my kids are American. How is he protecting Americans if is trying to destroy the parents and future of [these] children?”
As a bar apprentice at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and a member of the Unite Here Culinary Union Local 226, Martinez is one of thousands of TPS recipients nationwide who are keeping the tourism and service industries afloat, but whose futures are now unknown. Trump appears to be moving to end TPS entirely and has ended TPS designations for several countries over the last year, including El Salvador, which impacts over 200,000 immigrants, many of whom have resided in the United States for at least a decade. Martinez has had TPS for 17 years. His wife is also a TPS recipient, and the couple have two U.S. citizen children.
Martinez was a special guest of Nevada Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen and was one of many immigrants in attendance, despite Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) reportedly contacting U.S. Capitol Police and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, requesting police check the identification of State of the Union attendees and arrest and deport all undocumented immigrants, even if they were invited to the event.
Martinez told Rewire that he is aware that the “temporary” in TPS was just that—temporary—and that he is grateful for the years he has been able to “work and contribute” to the United States. He said he was anxious to hear Trump lend his support to the American Promise Act, which would provide a pathway to residency for TPS recipients who meet specific requirements.
“I don’t think people understand what we have contributed, paying taxes and paying into Social Security and Medicare, and these are things we cannot access for ourselves,” said Martinez, who also noted he wasn’t surprised when Trump ended El Salvador’s TPS designation. “What has surprised me [by the administration’s move to end TPS for Salvadorans] is that we are not being given any opportunity to stay in the country after all we have contributed. This means my family will be divided and it’s going to hurt my children, who are Americans, but who are not being protected [like] how Trump said.”
Many Salvadoran TPS recipients, including Martinez, originally fled El Salvador in the 1990s to escape the country’s brutal, 12-year-long civil war that resulted in the death and disappearance of an estimated 75,000 civilians. The United States’ training and financial support of El Salvador’s dictatorship led to the country’s destabilization, causing many to flee the gang violence that emerged and that continues today, making El Salvador one of the deadliest countries in the world.
Trump routinely fails to mention that it was U.S. immigration policy that contributed to the spread of the transnational gang MS-13, which began in Los Angeles. Instead, he spent a good portion of his speech, as he often does, conflating immigrants with violent gangs, criminality, and terrorism. At one point Trump said his proposed immigration framework “closes the terrible loopholes exploited by criminals and terrorists to enter our country” and blamed two recent terrorist attacks on the visa lottery and “chain migration,” a coin termed by anti-immigrant hate groups. These statements come just weeks after Trump reportedly referred to African countries as “shithole countries.” It should be noted that the visa lottery and family sponsorship are the primary pathways for Black immigrants to migrate and obtain status in the United States, according to BAJI.
If there is no progress made to pass legislation like the American Promise Act, TPS recipients like Martinez, who have an estimated 192,000 U.S. citizen children, will be forced to make a difficult decision about whether they will leave their children behind in the United States or take them with them when they are forced to deport. For Salvadoran parents, that means bringing their children and young adults back to a country where they are especially susceptible to gang violence.
When asked what he will do should such a decision have to be made, Martinez said that kind of plan B “wasn’t an option.” “I will fight until the end,” Martinez said. “I’m not going to give up, even if the U.S. denies me, even if the U.S. says they don’t want us anymore, we’re not going to give up. My plan B is to keep fighting.”