NORFOLK, Va. — As part of a major push to sway the nation on immigration policy, the U.S. attorney general argued Friday that a “merit-based” immigration system would make the country safer.

Speaking before law enforcement officials in Norfolk, Virginia, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the administration wants to “welcome the best and brightest” while banning what he called “child abusers” and “drunk drivers.”

Sessions’ speech was part of a major push by the White House that’s designed to turn public opinion against the nation’s largely family-based immigration system. The issue is expected to be prominently featured in the president’s upcoming State of the Union address.

Sessions spoke against an immigration system that he said favors nearly anyone with an American relative. He also said it allows terrorists into the country.

Sessions cited a recent Department of Homeland Security report that said about 1,700 aliens with national security concerns have been removed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The White House’s effort will play out in a difficult political climate, as even Republicans in Congress are leery of engaging in a major immigration debate ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. Critics have also questioned the administration’s selective use of sometimes misleading data in the past.

Sessions did not make himself available for questions after his speech in Norfolk. He made his remarks just days after news broke that he was interviewed last week as part of the special counsel’s Russia investigation.