Trump Announces Plan Prioritizing Merit-Based Immigration Over Family Ties, Asylum-Seekers

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A U.S. Border Patrol agent patrols the Goat Canyon area near Calexico along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Ariana Drehsler/KQED)

Updated at 1 p.m., Thursday, May 16

President Trump announced an immigration proposal on Thursday that would dramatically reshape the legal immigration system in the United States, prioritizing merit-based immigration over family ties and asylum-seekers.

The plan "puts jobs, wages and safety of American workers first," Trump said in the White House Rose Garden. "We must implement an immigration system that will allow our citizens to prosper for generations to come."

The plan does not address the pressing challenge of what to do about the estimated 11 million people currently in the country illegally, one of the core issues that has animated Trump's presidency.

The speech was notably softer in tone for a president who has often used harsh language when describing immigrants.

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Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has been quietly working on the plan for months and briefed Republican senators on the details Tuesday. A senior administration official, who spoke to reporters Wednesday on the condition that his name not be used, said the proposal was a "good faith effort" intended to unify Republicans and start a discussion.

"Right now, this is the Trump plan and we're hoping this will become the Republican plan," the official said.

The plan, as described by the administration official, would prioritize merit-based immigration, limiting the number of people who could get green cards by seeking asylum or based on family ties. But it would keep immigration levels static, neither increasing or decreasing the number of people allowed to legally enter the U.S. each year. Here are the elements of the proposal as described to reporters:

  • Securing the border: Finishing the border wall
  • Protecting American wages: Stemming the flow of low-wage labor
  • Attract and retain the best and brightest immigrants
  • Prioritize nuclear families: It would limit family members who can come to the country to children and spouses
  • Import labor for critical industries
  • Preserve humanitarian values: Keep asylum system, but limit it

Democrats criticized the plan, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said was “dead on arrival.”

“I want to say something about the word that they use, merit," Pelosi said. "It is really a condescending word. Are they saying family is without merit? Are they saying most of the people that ever came to the United States in the history of our country are without merit because they don’t have an engineering degree? Certainly we want to attract the best to our country and that includes many people from many parts of society.”

The announcement comes as the Trump administration is struggling to deal with a dramatic increase in asylum-seekers trying to enter the U.S. along the southern border, creating what many are now calling a humanitarian crisis.

Earlier this year, President Trump declared a national emergency to go against the wishes of Congress and shift funds to build the border wall he promised during his presidential campaign. White House aides see this as an ideal moment to try again to reshape the immigration system and enhance border security, something that requires congressional buy-in.

More KQED immigration coverage

Democrats are unlikely to support any immigration proposal that doesn't also address the young people who came to the U.S. as children and are now here illegally, known as Dreamers. Trump moved to eliminate the Obama-era program to give them work permits and protection from deportation, and the program is now in limbo pending court action.

The last time Trump and his White House proposed an immigration overhaul, it included a path to citizenship for Dreamers. While potentially more detailed, this proposal is less comprehensive than previous offers by Trump and his administration.

Asked about this omission, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday: "Because it's a serious program, it's not included. Every single time that we have put forward or anyone else has put forward any type of immigration plan and it's included DACA, it's failed. It's a divisive thing. Certainly something to discuss and look at and address, but this plan is focused on fixing a different part of the immigration system."

DACA has registered strong bipartisan support among voters: A 2018 Gallup poll found that 83% of Americans backed giving citizenship to DACA recipients.

The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) said Trump's plan was "more-of-the-same" — one that cuts family visas, guts the asylum system and funds a failed border wall — and left out those in the country on conditional status, such as Dreamers.

"This immoral immigration plan helps only those in the lap of privilege and leaves families in the cold," Angelica Salas, CHIRLA's executive director, said in a statement. "Most importantly, we need to affirm, in no uncertain terms, that migration is not a matter of deserving — that it is a human right, not a conferred privilege. Everyone has the right to seek safety and a better life for themselves and their family, and we should aim for a fair process that lets them do that."

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally to Trump, said the proposal was purposely narrow by not addressing those in the country already.

"I don't think it's designed to get Democratic support as much as it is to unify the Republican party around border security," said Graham, who characterized it more as a "negotiating position" than a legislative proposals. "This is what we want on border security, this is what we want on merit-based immigration, and then we'll have to sit down and find common ground on the 11 million."

Graham was involved in the last major bipartisan effort to overhaul immigration in 2013. It passed the Senate but failed in the House. Trump's proposal has zero chance of becoming law without bipartisan support. At the moment, it isn't clear whether it has Republican buy-in, much less Democrats.

And the proposal is likely to run into trouble from the right, too, because it doesn't restrict legal immigration.

"This bill will only get worse. As a starting point, it's not acceptable," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Krikorian wants to see the level of legal immigration reduced and is concerned that the Trump proposal doesn't even start by calling for a cut in immigration.

More KQED coverage of  the U.S.-Mexico border

"I don't think any of them really understands how important it is to his voters that there be some acknowledgement that numbers need to come down," said Krikorian. "Is it an actual legislative vehicle or is it a campaign statement? And if it is real legislation why would they start with what is already a compromise position? The art of the deal says you start with an aggressive position. Why wouldn't this have cuts to legal immigration?"

While insisting that this was a serious proposal, the White House official also suggested that the Democrats running for president should be asked about the plan — which isn't in the form of legislation and has no lawmakers signed on as sponsors.

Speaking in Trumpian hyperbole, the administration official boasted, "This will probably be one of the most detailed immigration proposals that has ever been put out," before adding the caveat that he was talking about language to be released at some future date and not what Trump will unveil in the Rose Garden.

KQED News' Ted Goldberg, Miranda Leitsinger and Farida Jhabvala Romero contributed to this report.