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Trump: I'm Open to Legal Status for Some Undocumented Immigrants

The major policy shift could roil the president's base after he campaigned on cracking down on illegal immigration.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Feb. 24.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters, file

The Trump administration could be open to providing legal status to undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious crimes, President Donald Trump said on Tuesday, signaling a major shift in his immigration policy.

Trump could make the call for an immigration bill during his first joint address to Congress on Tuesday night in a speech that could call for compromise on a number of fronts.

"The time is right for an immigration bill if both sides are willing to compromise," Trump said, adding that individuals seeking legal status would not need to leave the country first.

Mention of the policy during Tuesday night's speech — which has been billed as a checklist of campaign promises — could roil Trump's base after the president campaigned on cracking down on illegal immigration across the U.S. border with Mexico.

"By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars,and make our communities safer for everyone," Trump will say, according to excerpts released ahead of the speech.

Early speech excerpts signal Trump could strike a more conciliatory tone than the bombastic new president has done since entering the White House.

"The time for small thinking is over, the time for trivial fights is behind us, we just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts, the bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls, and the confidence to turn those hopes and dreams to action. From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations not burdened by our fears," Trump will say, according to the pre-released remarks.

He also is expected to defend his budget by pointing to increases in military spending. “My budget will also increase funding for our veterans...Our veterans have delivered for this nation and now we must deliver for them,” he will say.

Trump’s budget, unveiled this week, came under fire from some Republicans for cutting State Department funding and not giving a bigger increase to the Department of Defense.

The openness to compromise on immigration marks a massive departure in the rhetoric Trump used on the campaign trail when he explicitly promised a Phoenix crowd that undocumented immigrants "cannot obtain legal status or become a citizen of the United States by illegally entering our country."

Unapologetically tough rhetoric like that earned him a reputation as an immigration hardliner - something that Trump supporters across the country told NBC News they liked about him - and he repeatedly attacked his opponents for being "weak" on the issue.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Sen. Marco Rubio were all mocked by Trump for their immigration stances during the 2016 campaign. Rubio was specifically targeted as a member of the 2013 Senate Gang of 8, a bipartisan group of lawmakers who pushed a comprehensive immigration reform effort through the Senate only to have it fail in the House. The Gang of 8 plan included increased border security, as well as a path toward legal status for those undocumented immigrants already in the United States.

On the campaign trail in December 2015, Trump credited himself for making his Republican rivals toughen their rhetoric on immigration. "You ever notice how these guys are all pivoting? They're all weak. They were member of the Gang of 8. You know the Gang of 8, 'Come on in folks do whatever the hell you want you'll be a citizen don't worry about it alright.'" he told the Mesa, Arizona crowd. "They'll all and they're all saying oh what terrible language with Trump. Now they're all coming in they're trying to be more and more they can never get more so than me."

Related: DHS Immigration Crackdown: What You Need to Know

But Trump's comments Tuesday show he could be coming around to where his rivals were at the outset of the 2016 campaign - and a sign that his tough talk on immigration reform could have just been the start of making a deal on an issue that has vexxed Washington lawmakers for years.

Another hot button issue, healthcare and the fate of President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, will likely be discussed in familiar terms.

Trump will likely tout his belief that Americans should be able to buy health insurance over state lines, but more specifics on the White House's plan to replace Obamacare will likely not be outlined by the president Tuesday night, according to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

The themes touched upon Tuesday will, however, likely hit familiar themes from the larger Republican discussion about how to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Related: Trump Meets With Insurance Execs on Obamacare Repeal

Spicer said Tuesday afternoon that the first part of the speech would focus on the president's jobs and economy message, likely bringing up trade deficits and including a discussion of what Trump will do to bring jobs back to the country. He hinted at a powerful opening, teasing multiple times that this could be a quotable part of the address.

After speaking about the economy, President Trump will turn to national security.

The press secretary used the words "radical Islamic terror" when describing some of the content that could come up in joint address remarks Tuesday night, but it was unclear whether or not Trump himself would use that language.

He did use that phrase multiple times as a candidate, attacking then-President Barack Obama for not using the term.

The address will include a moment of remembrance for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away last year. Scalia's widow, Maureen, is a guest of the White House Tuesday evening.

Trump has nominated moderate Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace Scalia on the court, who is expected to receive a shout out during the remarks.

Trump is expected to detail "what he's inherited" — a situation he's previously and repeatedly called "a mess."

At the same time, President Trump will also pitch for "unity," Spicer said. The president will make an overture to work together and present an optimistic tone for the country going forward.