President Donald Trump unveiled his latest immigration overhaul plan Thursday, but given its lack of outreach to Democrats, it likely will go little further than the Rose Garden setting where it first saw light.
Trump used the White House backdrop to also reiterate some of his familiar hard-line immigration stances that may ingratiate him to his conservative base, but usually only repel Democrats and many independents.
“Democrats are proposing open borders, lower wages, and frankly, lawless chaos,” the self-described “America first” president said, adding: “We are proposing an immigration plan that puts the jobs, wages and safety of American workers first.”
A major crux of Trump’s plan — largely crafted by his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller — is to move the United States toward what the White House calls a “merit-based” immigration system.
The proposal would make major changes to family-based immigration, making it more difficult for migrants to have their spouses and children join them in the United States. That’s where the “merits” would come in, meaning a proposed system based on whether migrants have special skills to help the U.S. economy or specific U.S. job offers. It would also require English-language proficiency, certain education standards and a civics exam passage.
The president spoke of a border security trust fund filled by fees charged at the southern border, and slammed the asylum system as “broken” and one that spawns “frivolous claims” that allow migrants to “game admission.”
“If you have a proper claim, you will quickly be admitted,” he said. “If you don’t, you will promptly be returned home.”
When a reporter earlier this month asked a senior administration official who was conducting a background briefing to explain how the plan would “reunite separated families” at the southern border, that official quickly offered a correction, saying, “To unite families through the legal immigration process. That’s what we’re working on.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not sound inclined to bring the proposal to a vote, saying Thursday morning that the administration has asked to brief members on the plan. She said Democratic leaders are willing to accommodate that and hear them out. But she also expressed concerns about the proposal going after family-based immigration, saying any comprehensive immigration plan should respect families.
“The word that they use, merit. It is really a condescending word,” she said. “Are they saying family is without merit?”
The plan Trump described Thursday did not include a temporary or permanent fix for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that the president froze and a federal court has allowed to continue while litigation is ongoing. And it calls for Trump’s proposed southern border wall, which he said again Thursday is “desperately needed.”
That’s a problem because top Democrats have long said any immigration overhaul they might even consider supporting would have to address the DACA program, which protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation. And they vehemently oppose the kind of border barrier the president has discussed.
Those are among the reasons why a top conservative immigration analyst this week said there is “zero chance it will be approved by Congress.”
“There’s a fundamental problem that suggests the brain trust overseeing this effort is out of touch with the president’s base. The proposal will not include any reduction in the overall level of legal immigration, not even a symbolic one,” Mark Kirkorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, wrote for the conservative National Review. “In other words, all the reductions in green cards from ending the visa lottery and narrowing the family categories would be reallocated to the newly revised merit system.”
Democrats mostly shrugged.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said Thursday he is “suspicious” of the proposal, although he has not seen it yet.
“I fundamentally disagree with President Trump on his immigration policies, because I think he’s trying to restrict the ability of good people to come to this country,” the Maryland Democrat said.
“We all want highly skilled people in this country, and we’ve done a lot to discourage that by our immigration policies, so we should fix our immigration policies to deal with it. But America’s strength is in our values and protecting people who are in danger has always been an American value,” he added.
Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow said she is not sure if she supports the proposal, but seemed dubious.
“I have not yet seen the full proposal yet but I certainly want to ask my farmers, for instance, who are needing important skilled farm labor. I have no idea if that fits,” she said, referring to Trumps immigration proposal.
Stabenow noted that Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration legislation quickly.
“We need comprehensive immigration reform so that we’re talking about the opportunity for people in a variety of ways to be able to legally come into the United States,” she said.
Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro gave the White House credit for “coming up with something and presenting it to legislators — I do think that’s a good thing.” But the Democrat signaled the plan lacks support from Trump’s congressional allies, much less a single Democratic member.
“By all accounts so far, even the Republican senators are not taking this proposal seriously,” Castro told CNN. “So it’s hard to imagine that many of my colleagues, either Republicans or Democrats in the House, would take it seriously, if [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and his folks aren’t taking it seriously to begin with.”
Notably, Republican lawmakers issued few endorsements of the White House’s new proposal — and certainly none that were gushing.
“A merit-based immigration system is a move in the right direction for our economy. We should welcome the opportunity to attract and hire the top talent globally,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn said in a statement.
But the Tennessee Republican also called for closing loopholes “to end chain migration and to bring the asylum-seeking process under control.”
Several Republicans are trying to put together a bill aimed at dealing with an influx of migrants at the southern border.
Trump endorsed that in-the-works legislation, which is being crafted by Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham. “This is the big, beautiful plan,” he said of his own plan, before addressing the South Carolina Republican, seated in the Rose Garden audience: “But we need something very quickly, and if you can get it done, that would be fantastic.”
With little support from enough GOP senators to move McConnell to act, the White House plan appears to be little more than a 2020 campaign document.
A White House official told CQ Roll Call there is no plan to search for a piece of must-pass legislation on which the proposal — or part of it — might ride this year.
Meanwhile, other pressing matters were on the president’s mind Thursday. Asked while standing outside the West Wing earlier in the day for his Swiss counterpart to arrive for meetings, a reporter asked Trump if the U.S. will soon be at war with Iran.
“I hope not,” he replied.
Lindsey McPherson and Camila DeChalus contributed to this report.