When Donald Trump kicked off his presidential campaign at Trump Tower in 2015, he memorably said that Mexico was “not sending their best” people and declared that immigrants were bringing drugs, crime and rape to America.
Nearly four years later, he’s now putting forward a plan that he argues would select the best immigrants from other countries.
With the 2020 election on the horizon, Trump unveiled a plan in the White House Rose Garden that would establish a new merit-based system for legal immigration and add security measures at the southern border.
“Democrats are proposing open borders, lower wages and frankly lawless chaos,” Trump said on Thursday. “We are proposing an immigration plan that puts the jobs, wages and safety of American workers first.”
Drafted by top advisers Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller, the proposal outlines an immigration system that focuses mostly on those with specific professional skills and education, replacing decades-old laws favoring relatives of other immigrants.
“It would be a big departure from our current system,” says Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell University. “Right now two-thirds of all immigrants who are admitted are based on some kind of family characteristic.”
For now, the plan is going nowhere in Congress. The Democratic majority in the House would look skeptically on any Trump immigration proposal, much less one this sweeping, but Senate Republicans aren’t eager to take up the issue right now either.
But as the official White House line on immigration, the proposal sets a marker for where Trump hopes the Republican Party will eventually go — and that is toward the most dramatic rethinking of immigration since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965.
Congress tried to move toward skills-based immigration in 1990, but the changes did not stem the flow of family-sponsored immigrants. In his speech, Trump cited Canada and Australia, which both assign points for various skills or qualities in immigrants when deciding who to admit.
Under his system, Trump said immigrants would be rated by their age, English proficiency, level of education and offers of employment. It would also increase visas for those with particular skills from 12% now to 57% under the new system.
The plan is notable for what it leaves out as well, such as how to address undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who have been given a temporary reprieve by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
A senior White House official argued that previous efforts on those issues had been futile.
“In the past people have always jumped into negotiations and tried to find comprehensive deals without starting with what they’re trying to accomplish,” the official said. “What we are trying to do is what I think is a very important step … which is to come up with a very, very detailed proposal on what it is that we want.”
House Democrats beg to differ. Although they have not yet been briefed by the White House on the proposal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she and her her caucus would love to see comprehensive immigration reform, but a package must notably include a pathway for DACA recipients and “respect for family.” The White House’s focus on a merit system, she argued, does not accomplish either objective.
“It’s really a condescending word,” she said. “Are they saying family is without merit? Are they saying most people who have come to the United States in the history of our country are without merit because they don’t have an engineering degree?”
But the plan seems less geared towards garnering bipartisan support than on solidifying support among Republicans. “I don’t think [the plan] is designed to get Democratic support as much as it is to unify the Republican party,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters after Kushner and Miller briefed lawmakers on Tuesday about the plan.
His musings were confirmed by the Senior White House official, who told reporters: “The President’s immediate goal is to put together a proposal that is representative of his values and try to get Republicans around it.”
For now, the Republican caucus does not appear unified behind the plan. Tellingly, very few members of Congress released public statements after Trump’s Rose Garden announcement. And the plan also does little to appease those who would like to restrict immigration further.
Unlike the RAISE act (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy), which Sens. Tom Cotton and David Purdue first introduced in 2017 and Trump later endorsed, it does not reduce the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, lambasted Trump’s plan in a piece for the National Review on Tuesday, calling it “out of touch with the president’s base.”
Republicans also know that no proposal will become law without Democratic support, leaving many on Capitol Hill wondering about the legislative roadmap. The White House says it has drafted bill language, but is keeping it strictly under wraps. No lawmakers have stepped forward offering to sponsor the bill and no legislative text is being drafted.
The only immigration bill that appears to be imminently under consideration is the one Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced on Wednesday, which focuses less on legal immigration than on migrants crossing through the southern border. Under the proposal, migrants seeking asylum would apply in processing centers outside the United States, in the Northern Triangle and Mexico, and families would be held together in the United States for 100 days — an 80-day increase from the current law.
Graham’s plan is unlikely to garner Democratic support either, but it at least has a plan for being considered.
Even Trump, never one to downplay his chances of defeat, conceded that legislation would likely be more effective if it was shepherded by someone like Graham — even if it was on much smaller scale.
“This is the big beautiful bold plan, but we need something very quickly, and if you can get it done that would be fantastic,” Trump told Graham, who was in attendance for his speech, on Thursday.
For a president loath to admit defeat, it was the closest he could muster to an acknowledgement his proposal was virtually certain to never become law in its current form.
With reporting by Brian Bennett in Washington