US President Donald Trump delivers an address to the nation on funding for a border wall from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC on Jan 8, 2019. (Photo: AFP / POOL / CARLOS BARRIA)

WASHINGTON - AFP
US-Mexico border situation a 'growing crisis': Donald Trump

The situation along the US border with Mexico is a "growing crisis", President Donald Trump said on Tuesday (Jan 8), stressing that uncontrolled illegal immigration is hurting millions of Americans.

"There is a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border," Trump said in a rare live Oval Office address to the nation, adding that every day US Customs and Border Patrol agents "encounter thousands of illegal immigrants trying to enter our country".

Trump repeated his call for a wall on the border, calling it "absolutely critical to border security".

He repeated his demand for US$5.7 billion in funding for a wall on the border with Mexico, but stopped short of calling for a much-touted state of emergency.

"As part of an overall approach to border security, law enforcement professionals have requested US$5.7 billion for a physical barrier," Trump said.

Trump had spent days mulling declaring a state of emergency along the border that would have given him powers to bypass Congress, which has so far refused to fund the wall project, and draw funds from the military to build the border barrier.

However, in his address, Trump appeared to be willing instead to continue seeking a solution to the impasse with Congress.

Trump spoke in an unusually measured voice, apparently hoping to claim the moral high ground, and said he wanted to bridge the political divide in what could be the defining power struggle of his turbulent presidency.

"I have invited congressional leadership to the White House tomorrow to get this done. Hopefully, we can rise above partisan politics in order to support national security," he said. "This situation could be solved in a 45-minute meeting."


TRUMP OPPONENTS REACT

Despite that softer tone, Trump also spent much of the speech doubling down on his controversial message - popular among his right-wing base - that illegal immigration at the US-Mexican border is above all a threat to the lives of Americans.

He listed gruesome examples of crimes committed by illegal immigrants, including a "beheading and dismembering," and said he would "never forget the pain" of survivors he'd met.

"How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job? For those who refuse to compromise in the name of border security, I would ask to imagine if it was your child, your husband, or your wife whose life was so cruelly shattered and totally broken," he said.

That, to opponents, is at best fear mongering for political purposes - or race baiting at worst.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in her instant rebuttal speech that the real problem was Trump's "cruel and counter-productive policies" making the border ever more dangerous for vulnerable migrants, including young families.

Trump is scheduled to visit the southwest border on Thursday and it was not clear whether he still might choose to make the national emergency declaration.

Trump's remarks came 18 days into a partial government shutdown precipitated by his demand for wall construction, which he has said is needed to keep out illegal immigrants and drugs.

The shutdown, that started as a negotiating tactic, has turned into a symbol of dysfunctional Washington politics - and increasingly a painful situation for unpaid workers.

Salaries were put on hold for large numbers of employees when Trump refused to sign government spending bills as a way of trying to strongarm the Democrats into funding his wall.

Pelosi, who is speaker of the Democrat-held House of Representatives, accused Trump of "holding the American people hostage."

Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, accused Trump of governing "by temper tantrum" and using government workers "for leverage."

Democrats and other opponents of a border wall had threatened to take legal action if Trump issued the order, arguing that he is manufacturing a crisis to carry out his 2016 presidential campaign promise for a wall that he said at the time would be paid for by Mexico. 

The Mexican government has refused to provide such funds.


US MEDIA OUTLETS FACT-CHECK TRUMP

Following Trump's address, fact-checking teams at US media outlets quickly took issue with a number of Trump's assertions - for instance, his statement that every day US agents at the border with Mexico "encounter thousands of illegal immigrants trying to enter our country." That number is vastly overstated, CNN and The New York Times said.

Also wrong are Trump's assertions that 90 per cent of the heroin entering the US crosses over from Mexico and that Mexico, indirectly, through a new trade agreement with the US and Canada, would end up paying for a wall, the Times said.

It was also significant that Trump did not announce a national emergency, which would have theoretically given him the right to charge ahead alone, getting the money from the military.

Democrats and some Republicans had warned that this would be seen as a dangerous escalation of the row and would be challenged in court.


HISTORIC STAGE

The Oval Office has witnessed many historic announcements, ranging from George W. Bush's reaction to the 9/11 attacks to John F Kennedy's televised appearance at the height of the Cuban missile crisis.

Trump's gambit was that the solemn setting will allow him to regain the momentum on the Mexico wall issue that helped him get elected in 2016 and has become an obsessive goal for supporters.

He will follow up with a rare trip to the Mexico border itself on Thursday.

With many Americans far from sold on Trump's lurid claims about illegal immigrants posing an overwhelming safety threat, the speech faced its own high barrier: credibility.

But the leader of the Republican-held Senate, Mitch McConnell, welcomed the speech and said Trump "reaffirmed his commitment to addressing the humanitarian and security crisis at our nation's southern border."

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