Immigration, legislation, investigation and child poverty: 4 scholars respond to Trump’s State of the Union

Editor’s note: In his second State of the Union address, President Donald Trump ranged from generous to combative, eloquent to blunt. He unexpectedly complimented the wave of recently elected Democratic women in the House, and they responded by applauding for themselves. And he spent a lot of time on a his favorite topic: immigration and the border wall. We asked four scholars to choose what they saw as key quotes and add context to the president’s speech.

Refugees now and refugees in history

Lisa García Bedolla, University of California, Berkeley

“The lawless state of our Southern Border is a threat to the safety, security and financial well-being of all Americans.”

The president framed the status of our southern border as “a moral issue.”

The problem is that his claim of morality flies in the face of history.

It is ironic that, later in the speech, President Trump recognized Holocaust survivors Judah Samet and Joshua Kaufman. Ironic because the international principle of accepting refugees in need arose from the events of World War II.

In June 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all of whom were Jewish refugees, were turned away from the port of Miami.

The ship was forced to return to Europe and more than a quarter of the passengers died in the Holocaust. This was just one of the many stories of Jewish refugees being denied a haven in safe countries and subsequently dying at the hands of the Nazis.

Trump tried to turn this history on its head, arguing that Central American women and children walking thousands of miles to claim political asylum in the United States are a threat to American security and well-being.

He conflated their desperate circumstances to the atrocious crimes committed by human traffickers, drug dealers and those that prey on the innocent attempting to find a better life.

These tropes are not new; they have become standard – and repeatedly debunked – rhetorical fare from Trump.

Investigating doesn’t rule out legislating

Robert Speel, Pennsylvania State University

“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”

The implication of President Trump’s quote is that Congress will be unable to pass laws while investigations continue of alleged malfeasance related to him, his administration and his 2016 campaign.

However, investigations of recent presidents in U.S. history indicate that is not the case.

In 1973, in the midst of the Watergate investigations of President Richard Nixon, Congress approved and then overrode a presidential veto of the War Powers Act, a law that attempted to redefine presidential military and foreign policy powers in the modern age.
During the same period, Congress also passed the Endangered Species Act, signed by President Nixon. Scientists participated in the writing of this landmark environmental legislation, which protected animal and plant species and ecosystems from unregulated development.

Richard Nixon signs a bill July 12, 1974, in the White House, giving Congress tighter control of the budget process. AP Photo
July 1974 was a crucial month for the federal government. The U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted to impeach President Nixon and the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the president had to turn over Oval Office tape recordings subpoenaed as part of the Watergate investigation.

Something else happened that momentous month: Major legislation was passed by Congress.

The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 changed the federal budget process to give Congress more control and prevent the president from refusing to spend funds approved by Congress.

And the Legal Services Corporation Act of 1974 was passed to provide legal aid for lower income Americans.

In 1998, Congress and Independent Counsel Ken Starr were investigating allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice by President Bill Clinton.

That year, Congress approved the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to prevent online marketing to children and collection of information from children. The law today continues to have a significant impact in limiting social media use by children.

Congress also approved that year, and President Clinton signed, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which expanded U.S. copyright laws into the digital world and complied with new international treaties on the issue.

So, while congressional investigations of a president, and “war” between the two branches may not make the legislative process particularly smooth, it is still possible for significant and long-lasting laws to pass.