His proposal represents another lost opportunity.
In a Rose Garden address, President Trump on Thursday unveiled his plan “to create a fair, modern and lawful system of immigration for the United States.”
“This is the big, beautiful, bold plan,” Mr. Trump said — one that would not only establish “the most complete and effective border security package ever assembled,” but also effect a “sweeping modernization of our dysfunctional legal immigration process.”
These are, to be sure, worthy goals. Unfortunately, what Mr. Trump rolled out was less a transformative reform proposal than another missed opportunity. Immigration is this president’s signature issue, one defined by entrenched, complex problems that call for serious thought, informed analysis and painful compromise. Instead, the president has produced a political messaging vehicle — a vision statement around which to unify and rally his party heading into next year’s election.
Even on those narrow, dispiriting terms, it’s likely to fall short.
Assembled over the past several months by Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, this proposal does not address some of the thorniest elements of the immigration debate. Most notably, it avoids the question of what to do about the 1.8 million immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children and protected from deportation under an Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. No proposal that fails to grapple with this vulnerable population will be taken seriously by Democrats — nor should it be.
The plan also does not address how to bring the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States out of the shadows.
Instead, as the president indicated, Mr. Kushner limited his focus on beefing up border security and reworking the legal immigration system.
On border security, the plan sticks with many of the administration’s aims to which Democrats have objected, such as overturning the prohibition on holding child migrants in custody for no more than 20 days, deporting unaccompanied minors back to their home countries, having some asylum-seekers remain in their home countries while their requests are processed and, of course, building the wall.
To help ensure funding for these measures and more, a new “border security trust fund” would be created, financed by fees and other revenue generated at border crossings.
In terms of legal immigration, Mr. Kushner’s plan proposes a “merit-based” system, moving away from the program that gives priority to reunifying families that has been in place since the 1960s. The number of visas granted on humanitarian grounds would be reduced, and the diversity visa lottery would be eliminated altogether.
While family ties would still inform a third of admissions — down from the current two-thirds — the balance would flip overwhelmingly in favor of bringing in highly skilled, high-wage workers. “We discriminate against genius,” Mr. Trump said in his speech. “We won’t anymore.”
Drawing on plans used in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, Mr. Kushner’s team has devised an elaborate point system to determine eligibility, based on factors like age, academic achievement and employment offers. “To promote integration, assimilation and national unity,” said the president, “future immigrants will be required to learn English and to pass a civics exam prior to admission.” A new type of visa would be created, named the Build America Visa.
Shifting legal immigration toward a point system is not an inherently good or bad idea. Congress considered such an approach in 2007 and again in 2013. As with any complex system, the devil is in the details — few of which the administration has yet provided. And any move to sharply prioritize skilled labor over immigrants seeking to reunite with family members or in need of humanitarian aid is certain to prompt a fierce debate over American values.
Even within the plan’s broad contours, there are obvious trouble spots that threaten to divide Mr. Trump’s own party. Mr. Kushner has not provided for a reduction in the level of legal immigration, a central aim of immigration hawks. In a pre-speech briefing, a senior administration official said that this proposal is designed, in part, to show that the Republican Party is not anti-immigrant, a commendable goal if it’s actually backed up by a policy that delivers.
The official further suggested that holding legal levels steady wouldn’t be a big concern for immigration skeptics, because the merit-based system would shore up wages for American workers. But even if the new point system fulfilled its economic promises, the idea that wage concerns are the only factor driving restrictionists is naïve to the point of delusional.
When Mr. Kushner previewed his plan to congressional Republicans this week, the reviews were underwhelming. Some of the president’s congressional supporters have already acknowledged that this is not a serious legislative proposal. “The White House’s plan is not designed to become law,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, contrasting it with his own new plan. Even administration officials are calling the plan a “first step” on the path to concrete legislation and comprehensive reform.
The president could not resist the opportunity to play politics with his announcement. “We hope to get it passed as soon as possible,” he stressed. He closed by expressing his hope that Democrats — whom he had already called, earlier in the speech, the party of “open borders, lower wages and, frankly, lawless chaos” — would join him in “putting politics aside” and passing “these historic reforms.”
Should Democrats somehow fail to embrace and enact his plan, the president had an answer. “We will get it approved immediately after the election,” he vowed, “when we take back the House, keep the Senate and, of course, hold the presidency.”