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Trump’s Immigration Overhaul Faces Cold Reception—Even Within GOP

May 16, 2019, 6:12 PM UTC
President Donald Trump’s plan to unite Republicans behind a comprehensive immigration overhaul — a move to counter perceptions ahead of the 2020 elections that the GOP is anti-immigrant — was showing signs of defeat even before it was formally unveiled.Details of the proposal — and particularly the decision by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner to sidestep what to do about those in the country illegally -– have already doomed its legislative prospects among Democrats. But some members of Trump’s own party are also throwing cold water on the plan, a sign it could backfire, deepening perceptions that he’s a radical on immigration while exposing GOP policy rifts.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who oversees immigration legislation, said Kushner’s bill isn’t going to become law. “We all know you’re not going to pass this without dealing with the other aspects of immigration,” he said on Wednesday.

Graham plans to move ahead instead with a narrowly targeted effort to overhaul asylum laws for immigrants from Central America — and urged the president to work with Democrats to forge a compromise to do so.

In his formal announcement Thursday in the White House Rose Garden, Trump portrayed the plan as “pro-immigrant,” saying that Democrats are proposing “open borders, lower wages and, frankly, lawless chaos.”

“Our plan will transform America’s immigration into the pride of our nation and the envy of the modern world,” Trump said. “Our proposal is pro-American, pro-immigrant and pro-worker.”

Trump’s proposal calls for new funding for border security measures –- including construction of the president’s signature border wall –- as well as implementing a new, points-based merit system for allocating green cards.

Campaign Fodder

Texas Senator John Cornyn, who is running for re-election in 2020, sees the effort as campaign fodder.

“I think he needs to run on it, and those like me who think it’s a pretty good idea will run on it, and when we win the election, he can claim a mandate and hopefully get something done,” Cornyn said. “I don’t think the Democrats are going to cooperate.”

Trump likewise on Thursday underscored the political motivations of his proposal.

“If for some reason, possibly political, we can’t get the Democrats to approve this merit-based, high-security plan, then we will get it approved immediately after the election when we take back the House, keep the Senate and, of course, hold the presidency,” Trump said. “One of the reasons we will win is because of our strong, fair and pro-America immigration policy.”

Democrats have already recoiled at reports the new system would reduce the number of immigrants who earn entry to the U.S. based on humanitarian or diversity reasons. Based on the White House’s own numbers, the percentage of those winning green cards based on those qualifications would be reduced to just 10% from 22% of immigrants today.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi objected to the use of the word “merit” to describe the plan. “Are they saying family is without merit?” she said Thursday in Washington. “Are they saying most of the people who have ever come to the United States in the history of our country are without merit because they don’t have an engineering degree?”

Some Republicans, meanwhile, have remained split over whether to increase or decrease legal immigration. Trump’s plan tries to bridge the gap by keeping the number of green cards issued at their current level –- rather than the deep cuts preferred by many conservatives –- and the focus on attracting middle and upper-middle class immigrants that could challenge current constituents for jobs.

Diversity Lottery

Trump’s plan would eliminate programs championed by Democrats, including the diversity visa lottery, instead offering additional “points” under the merit system to citizens of certain countries. That would contribute to overall rankings, with visa applicants increasing their score if they are of a desired age, proficient in English, in possession of an employment offer at a certain salary range, or certified in certain vocational training.

The plan also lacks programs such as E-Verify, a system that allows employers to confirm the eligibility of their workers, which Republicans have long supported as key components of immigration reform. There’s concern that the shift toward high-skilled workers could adversely impact construction and farming industries reliant on immigrant labor.

The White House plan is silent on the handling of specialty visas that have been created over time, often at the behest of corporate interests and donors looking to secure immigration status for key groups of employees.

White House officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the efforts to sell Republican leaders on the bill, acknowledged these concerns had been raised by multiple lawmakers. But while the officials are optimistic that the immigration overhaul would boost wages and the economy as a whole, they were unwilling to name any GOP lawmakers who had been swayed by their presentation.

Trump’s plan also sidesteps the issue of immigrants already in the country illegally, including the question of status for Dreamers, those brought to the country as children – a key concern for Democrats and moderate Republican lawmakers.

Not ‘Serious’

Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said the White House plan doesn’t represent a compromise and is flawed because it doesn’t include provisions on Dreamers.

“It’s not a serious effort,” Menendez told CNN.

Graham, a key Trump ally in the Senate, said Wednesday that the president needed to resume negotiations with Democrats to get them on board with stiffer asylum requirements for people from Central America — perhaps with sweeteners like provisions for Dreamers and aid to Central American countries.

“You are going to have to get Democrats in the room,” Graham said. “And this is the time for the ‘Tuesday Trump’ to show up.”

“Tuesday Trump” is a reference to a previous effort to reach an immigration compromise, when Trump on a Tuesday appeared to back a deal Democrats would support, but walked away from it by the end of the week.

Election Consequences

Graham warned that Trump “will own this problem” if he’s unwilling to agree to changes that could get Democrats on board.

That’s a persistent concern among many Republicans, who fear the president’s fiery rhetoric on immigration — not to mention the 35-day government shutdown he engineered over border wall funding, and the subsequent decision to declare a national emergency to reprogram funds to that project in defiance of Congress — could have electoral consequences.

Democrats were quick to try to capitalize on those concerns. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the plan represents “the same partisan, radical anti-immigrant policies that the administration has pushed for the two years” that haven’t won enough support to pass.

Just 42% of Americans approved of the way Trump was handling immigration in an Economist/YouGov poll released earlier this month with 48% disapproving. Underscoring the significance of the issue, 13% of Americans said immigration was the most important issue for them — trailing only health care among top priorities.