By Yeganeh Torbati and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday seized on the deadly New York City truck attack to step up demands for stricter U.S. immigration laws, asking Congress to end a visa program that let the Uzbek suspect into the country and saying he might send him to Guantanamo Bay.
In a day of harsh recriminations over Tuesday’s attack that killed eight people in America’s largest city, Trump appeared to assign some blame for an incident that authorities have labeled as terrorism to top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, who accused Trump of politicizing a national tragedy.
Trump said he would consider sending the suspect, identified by authorities as Sayfullo Saipov, to the military prison at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama tried but failed to shut. No detainee has been sent to the Guantanamo prison since 2008.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later told reporters that Trump considers Saipov an “enemy combatant,” a designation that would curtail his legal rights. Trump called the suspect “this animal” and lambasted the U.S. justice system for terrorism suspects as “a joke” and “a laughingstock.”
Since taking office in January, Trump has sought to increase deportations of illegal immigrations and limit legal immigration.
The Department of Homeland Security said Saipov entered the United States in 2010 through the so-called diversity visa program, designed to provide a path to U.S. residency for citizens from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States.
Authorities said Saipov drove a rented truck along a bike path in lower Manhattan, mowing down cyclists and pedestrians. Police shot and wounded Saipov before arresting him.
Trump reprised what has been his stance as a White House candidate and as president – that tougher immigration laws should be a first line of defense against such attacks.
“I’m going to ask Congress to immediately initiate work to get rid of this program,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
“We have to get much tougher,” he said. “We have to get much smarter. And we have to get much less politically correct. We’re so politically correct that we’re afraid to do anything.”
“I WANT MERIT BASED”
Schumer helped create the diversity visa program in 1990 when he in the House of Representatives, but he was also part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who crafted an immigration bill in 2013 that would have done away with the program. That bill was passed by the Senate but killed by the Republican-led House.
The program, via a lottery, selects up to 50,000 people per year who receive U.S. visas, and eventually permanent residence in the United States. Those selected undergo U.S. security checks before being allowed to immigrate.
“The terrorist came into our country through what is called the ‘Diversity Visa Lottery Program,’ a Chuck Schumer beauty. I want merit based,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Sanders said later that Trump does not blame Schumer for the attack and would “love” to work with the senator on tougher immigration laws.
Trump on Wednesday also renewed his call for a “merit-based” visa system – which would favor the highly skilled – and for ending “chain migration,” which allows legal immigrants to apply for relatives abroad to come to the United States. Trump said there were “23 people that came in or potentially came in” with Saipov.
Asked if legislation to end the visa program would be taken up, No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn told reporters that Congress must first pass legislation to protect illegal immigrants brought into the country as children, “and then the next thing we need to do is turn to our legal immigration system and see how we can change it.”
Trump accused congressional Democrats of blocking immigration legislation that would make the nation safer.
“We have a lot of good bills in there. We’re being stopped by Democrats because they’re obstructionists. And honestly, they don’t want to do what’s right for our country,” Trump said.
Both the Senate and the House are controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham criticized the Trump administration for not declaring Saipov, who remained hospitalized after being shot in the abdomen by a police officer on Tuesday, as an “enemy combatant.”
“It’s ridiculous to believe that one day of interviews in a hospital tells us all we need to know about Saipov’s terrorist ties,” Graham said in a statement.
The complaint filed against Saipov said he had waived his rights and agreed to speak to investigators without an attorney present.
As a presidential candidate, Trump called for a total ban on Muslims entering the country as a counter-terrorism measure.
Courts have blocked his latest executive action barring entry into the United States by people from several Muslim-majority countries. Sanders said the White House has not ruled out adding Uzbekistan to the list of countries named in the travel ban.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Schumer said that “instead of politicizing and dividing America, which he always seems to do at times of national tragedy, (Trump) should be bringing us together and focusing on the real solution, anti-terrorism funding, which he proposed to cut in his most recent budget.”
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Jim Oliphant, Susan Heavey, Makini Brice, Patricia Zengerle, Richard Cowan and Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry and Leslie Adler)