President Donald Trump sought to strike an optimistic, more conciliatory tone in his first joint session speech before Congress Tuesday night, a move that received positive reactions from some Asian-American Republicans and skepticism from some Democrats.
Trump spoke for one hour and touched on a range of issues important to the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, including immigration and health care reform, as well as education and law and order.
At the beginning of his speech, the president addressed the shooting of three men in a Kansas bar last week, which the FBI said Tuesday it was investigating as a hate crime. Two of the victims are Indian, one of whom died. The gunman allegedly shouted “get out of my country” before opening fire, witnesses said.
“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” Trump said Tuesday night.
California Republican national committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon, who delivered a Sikh prayer at last summer's Republican National Convention, said Trump sent a clear message Tuesday that hate will not be tolerated in America.
“I can tell you that Indian Americans around the world have been waiting to hear that from the president,” Dhillon told NBC News. “And I was very gratified to hear that this evening.”
While some Republicans like Cliff Li, executive director of the National Committee of Asian American Republicans, said Trump sounded more presidential than in previous speeches, others in the community were not sold.
“With this president, I pay attention to what he does more than what he says because in his first month in office, Donald Trump’s actions have not lived up to the clichés he delivered tonight,” Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) said in a statement Tuesday night.
AAPIs were among the federal lawmakers who brought guests to Tuesday’s joint session of Congress. Many invited members of the public whose lives have been personally affected by some of the contentious issues Republicans and Democrats have disagreed on.
U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) brought Queens, New York, resident Angie Kim, who came to the U.S. from South Korea with her parents at age 9. Kim, now 32, received deferred action status under an executive action signed by former President Barack Obama in 2012. That action temporarily protects undocumented immigrant children from deportation and also lets them work.
“Having Angie as my guest for the President’s speech is a huge show of solidarity against the cruel and un-American immigration policies of the Trump Administration,” Meng said in a statement ahead of the address. “Her parents came here seeking a better life and she now works to improve the lives of other immigrants.”
Trump did not specifically talk about his plans for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). He did praise what he said was Australia and Canada’s merit-based immigration systems and said “real and positive immigration reform is possible.”
“Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, will have many benefits: it will save countless dollars, raise workers' wages, and help struggling families — including immigrant families — enter the middle class,” Trump said.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) attended with Tima Kurdi, co-founder of the Kurdi Foundation, a group that helps refugee children. And Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) invited Aneelah Afzali, executive director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network, an initiative of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound.
Trump has drawn criticism from civil rights and refugee advocates over an executive order he signed in January temporarily halting a U.S. refugee program and imposing entry restrictions on people from seven Muslim-majority nations.
The order remains on hold after a federal appeals court refused to reinstate the ban, which was blocked by a lower court.
“Aneelah’s story is the American story,” Jayapal said in a statement before the speech. “A Muslim American woman of color, Aneelah has devoted her life to fighting for justice and equality. The president’s policies marginalize entire communities and target people like Aneelah for their race and religious beliefs.”
Trump did not specifically mention the executive order Tuesday night, but said it was “reckless to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur.”
“Those given the high honor of admission to the United States should support this country and love its people and its values,” he said.
National Council of Asian Pacific Americans director Christopher Kang criticized Trump’s message.
“While the president spoke of keeping Americans safe, he continued to promote his administration’s inhumane immigration enforcement policies that only generate more fear in our communities,” Kang said in a statement.
In his speech, Trump revisited many of the same topics he raised along the campaign trail, including health care, education, and law and order. He called on Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and pass legislation that funds school choice.
“I really like the new emphasis we’re hearing about education as a civil right and as a civil right of our times,” Dhillon said. “I think that’s a new theme for conservatives and I think that’s absolutely spot on.”
Trump also called on Americans to support the men and women of law enforcement, an issue that Li said resonates with many Asian Americans.
But Meng, the New York congresswoman, said in a statement after Trump’s address that she was “disheartened to hear about” his “priorities for the upcoming year.”
“He talked about supporting law enforcement and victims of crime but won’t support gun safety legislation,” she said. “His insistence on a repeal and replace of Obamacare that would expand choice and lower costs is not realistic.”
Still, some ideas Trump raised Tuesday had universal appeal among AAPIs, including accessible and affordable childcare and paid family leave for new parents.
“Asian families tend to be quite close knit and value children and value motherhood and I think that’s going to be something that resonates with them,” Dhillon said.
Li said he was impressed that Trump tamped down the negativity in his speech Tuesday.
“This really looked presidential,” Li said.
But not everyone agreed.
“Trump’s actions speak far louder than his words tonight," Laboni Hoq, litigation director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles told NBC News in a statement, "and we will continue to stay vigilant and resist his ongoing efforts to vilify our communities."