President Donald Trump declared a "growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border" during an address to the nation on Tuesday night from the Oval Office.
"All Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal migration," Trump said, calling the problem a "crisis of the heart and crisis of the soul."
He added, "This is the cycle of human suffering I am determined to end."
The president's nine-minute address, which was his first from the Oval Office, comes as a partial government shutdown stretched into its third week, prompted by an acrimonious standoff between Trump and House Democrats over his demand for more than $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump on Tuesday night did not declare a national emergency, although he had suggested he had the authority to do so to build the wall. He also made no mention of the administration's recent claims linking terrorism to those entering illegally from the southern border.
Instead, he painted a dire picture of the southern border, calling it a pipeline for "vast quantities of illegal drugs" and offered examples of Americans killed by undocumented immigrants.
"How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?" Trump said.
The president implored Congress to take up immigration reform and asked citizens to press their lawmakers on the issue.
"To every member of Congress, pass a bill that ends this crisis; to every citizen, call Congress to finally — after all these decades — secure our borders," Trump said. "This is a choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice. This is about whether we fulfill our sacred duty to the American citizens we serve."
Trump continued to blame Democrats for the issue, claiming that the party had previously supported physical barriers on the southern border before he became president but changed their position "only after I was elected president."
"Democrats in Congress have refused to acknowledge the crisis," Trump said. "The federal government is shut down for one reason and for one reason only: because Democrats will not fund border security."
He added: "My administration is doing everything in our power to help those impacted by the situation, but the only solution is for Democrats to pass a spending bill that defends our borders and reopens the government. This situation could be solved in a 45-minute meeting."
Trump announced in his speech that he had invited congressional leaders to the White House on Wednesday to continue to talks over the border wall funding. The president is also scheduled to visit the southern border on Thursday.
He touted his administration's plan to streamline immigration policy, including his request for $5.7 billion for a physical barrier. However, Trump said in a concession to Democrats that he would support a "steel barrier" rather than a "concrete wall."
"This barrier is absolutely critical to border security. It's also what our professionals at the border want and need," Trump said.
And he blasted critics for suggesting his wall is "immoral, mentioning "wealthy politicians" who have physical barriers around their homes to make his case, something he recently claimed about Barack and Michelle Obama.
"The only thing that is immoral is the politicians who do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized," he said.
The immigration system has long been an issue both parties agree needs to be fixed, but numerous attempts by Congress and previous administrations to address the issue have largely gone nowhere due to partisan divides and even intra-party disputes.
An Associated Press poll conducted before the shutdown found that nearly half of Americans — 49 percent — listed immigration as a problem, with 65 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Democrats citing it as a top issue. Also, according to a December Quinnipiac poll, a majority — 54 percent — opposed building the wall, with 86 percent of Republicans, 45 percent of independents and 8 percent of Democrats backing the idea.
Trump has frequently called immigration laws "weak," and has pressed Congress to do something about them.
The president has repeatedly tried to pin the blame on Democrats, accusing them of failing to close "loopholes" in the law, such as the visa lottery and family-sponsored immigration, which he has derided as "chain migration." Trump has also blamed Democrats for his administration's policy of separating immigrant families at the border, the so-called catch-and-release policy, and for the deaths of two migrant children in detention at the southern border.
During the midterms, Trump went on a dizzying tour across the country using immigration and border security as the centerpiece of his closing message to GOP voters, and he increasingly ratcheted up his anti-immigrant rhetoric in the run-up to Election Day.
He offered grim warnings about an "invasion" from a caravan of migrants and the "criminals" approaching the southern border. Trump also claimed without evidence in November that Democrats, who he says want "open borders," are "openly encouraging millions of illegal aliens to break our laws, violate our borders and overrun our country."
Ahead of the election, Trump deployed active-duty troops to the southern border and floated ending birthright citizenship with an executive order. He also tweeted an immigration ad featuring an unrepentant, twice-deported Mexican immigrant convicted of killing two law enforcement officers. The ad was widely slammed as racist and prompted comparisons to the infamous "Willie Horton" ads that ran during the 1988 presidential campaign.