By Steve Herman and Patsy Widakuswara
A proposed “fair, modern and legal” overhaul of the American immigration system, which lawmakers from both major U.S. parties contend has little chance of winning congressional approval, was announced Thursday by U.S. President Donald Trump.
“Random selection is contrary to American values and blocks out many qualified potential immigrants who have much to contribute,” Trump said in the White House Rose Garden Thursday afternoon.
The president explained his immigration system, which aims to shift the immigration approval process away from one that prioritizes family ties and humanitarian needs, to one that would attract “the best and the brightest from all around the world.”
According to Trump, the opposition “Democrats are proposing open borders, lower wages and, frankly, lawless chaos. We are proposing an immigration plan that puts the jobs, wages and safety of American workers first. Our proposal is pro-American, pro-immigrant and pro-worker. It’s just common sense.”
Developed by a team led by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the plan does not address the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for the so-called Dreamers — immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. That makes it a nonstarter for a number of legislators.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters prior to the president’s speech that administration officials decided against including DACA in the proposal because the issue is “divisive.” She blamed disagreements over DACA for scuttling similar immigration proposals in the past.
There has been a tug-of-war inside the White House West Wing over the president’s immigration policy, pitting the pragmatism of Kushner against hard-liner Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser.
The Trump administration attempted to end the Obama-era DACA program in 2017 and went through several legal challenges. The Supreme Court in January took no action on the administration’s request to review DACA. This means the fate of the program, and its 70,000 recipients, will not likely be determined until the court begins its new term in October.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Lyndsey Graham of South Carolina, is introducing his own more modest immigration legislation, saying, “The White House’s plan is not designed to become law.”
The Trump plan “is no plan at all,” said Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic Party congresswoman from the state of Washington who was born in India. “It excludes Dreamers and offers no path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. It undermines the family-based immigration system that has been a cornerstone of this country’s immigration policy and rejects the common knowledge that America needs workers of all skill levels.”
California Congressman Ted Lieu, a native of Taiwan, declared, in a tweet, that Trump’s proposal “is dead on arrival. The House of Representatives will not vote for any immigration plan that would have barred the grandfather of @realDonaldTrump from immigrating to the United States.”
Republican John Cornyn of Texas, who chairs the Senate’s subcommittee on border security and immigration, says those who criticize the Trump plan need “to say what they would do to fix our broken immigration system, to improve our system of legal immigration so we can continue to welcome immigrants from around the world who want to make America their home and become truly Americans.”
The White House proposal would keep the number of green cards or permanent residency issued at around 1.1 million annually. But, it will change the focus of how they would be allocated, prioritizing highly skilled and educated individuals with employment or investment prospects rather than family ties to U.S. citizens or humanitarian needs.
Currently, 12% of immigrants are given permission to come to the U.S. based on their skills, and 66% because of their connection to family already in the country legally. Under the plan, 57% of immigrant visas will be given to individuals with skills or offers of employment, and only 33% to people with family ties. Visas given based on humanitarian needs will be reduced, from 22% to 10%.
The U.S. immigration system already heavily favors skilled workers and higher-degree holders. In fiscal year 2017, the last year of official immigration data DHS has published, 62,051 people received visas for office or professional work, while 1,237 green card holders were listed as working in manual labor or transportation.
The economic justification for eliminating or drastically reducing family-sponsored immigration is questioned by immigration analysts.
“The vast majority of U.S. legal immigrants are family-sponsored, yet the U.S. immigrant population works at higher rates than the U.S.-born population,” said David Bier of the libertarian Cato Institute, who notes that nearly half of family-sponsored immigrants have college degrees, a much higher rate than U.S.-born adults.
Bier says adding more skilled immigration would benefit the United States, but “there is no justification for that coming at the expense of family reunification.”
The plan completely eliminates the Diversity Immigrant Visa program also known as the green card lottery, currently annually given to 50,000 people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.
The proposal also features a “Build America Visa” to attract highly skilled people, which will utilize a “points-based selection system,” Trump announced.
“Future immigrants will be required to learn English and pass a civics exam prior to admission,” Trump added.
“Depending on how that is measured, this will likely lead to less diversity,” immigration scholar Rick Su from the University of Buffalo said. “There are a number of very talented individuals working in the U.S. now, and doing quite well, that would likely have less English language proficiency than those from Anglophone countries.”
Bier says a points-based system would be dominated by the largest developing countries in the world, mostly India and China.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “I see no economic or moral reason to select immigrants on the basis of their place of birth.”
Trump also said on Thursday that his plan “expedites relief for legitimate asylum seekers by screening out the meritless claims.”
Those who don’t have legitimate claims “will be promptly returned home,” explained the president.
Overhauling the nation’s immigration law has been an issue of contention between Republicans and Democrats for years. The battle has intensified since 2016 when Trump ran for office on a pledge to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico to keep out migrants entering the country illegally.