Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Trump to launch plan to overhaul immigration laws

President Trump will roll out a new immigration proposal on Thursday at a White House Rose Garden event, putting the spotlight back on his signature issue as the 2020 presidential campaign kicks into high gear.

The plan, crafted by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, would create a “merit-based” visa system that gives preference to migrants with coveted job skills instead of relatives of other immigrants. It also calls for new infrastructure at ports of entry to speed up commerce while cracking down on drug and human smuggling.

While the White House has touted its proposal as a serious legislative effort aimed at breaking a long stalemate over immigration, there was a take-it-or-leave it aspect to the administration’s description of its strategy on Wednesday that underscored the skepticism surrounding it on Capitol Hill.

Officials conceded that legislative action may be far off and would come only after Republicans first rally around the proposal, with one saying on Wednesday that it represents a “good-faith effort to start a discussion about finding a resolution.”

A senior administration official, who requested anonymity to describe the plan, said Trump would use his plan as a tool in the election if Democrats do not “engage” with the administration.

“It’s going to be a very detailed piece of legislation, and it can be what they want it to be,” the official said.  “If they don’t want to engage, then it will be part of the election. If they want to engage, then it could be part of a negotiation. That’s going to be up to them.”

The timing of the release — just 18 months before a presidential election and less than six weeks before the first scheduled Democratic presidential debate — suggests serious negotiation is unlikely.

The proposal is also designed to unify Republicans, who have internal divisions on immigration reform, even though the Democrats control the House.

Trump and his team have thus far focused exclusively on garnering GOP support. Trump hosted a dozen Republican senators last week at the White House to preview the plan, and Kushner on Tuesday briefed the entire GOP conference in the Senate. On Wednesday afternoon, Kushner briefed House Republicans.

It’s not clear if Democrats were given a heads-up on the proposal.

The senior administration official would not say if Democrats had been consulted, and the proposal did not address issues that would be obvious Democratic demands.

For example, it does not contain ways to address the roughly 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. or include reforms to the nation’s guest-worker programs, which have been two of the most contentious issues in the immigration debate for decades.

The senior administration official said Trump’s team hopes to counter the notion that the president is anti-immigrant.

“I've heard a lot of people try to explain the president's immigration policy, and a lot of what people say is not reflective of what the things that he says to his team and to us,” the official said. “What we have put together is the president's immigration policy.”

The White House is expected to release an outline of its plan on Thursday, while the full version will not be made public. The senior administration official said it would be released “later on.”

Trump’s latest effort comes more than a year after he failed to push an immigration deal through the Republican-led Congress, at which time Democrats and some GOP lawmakers objected to cuts to legal immigration that were pushed by White House adviser Stephen Miller.

The new plan leaves the number of immigrants who obtain permanent legal residence each year, around 1.1 million, unchanged — a move that may anger Trump supporters who want lower levels of immigration.

It would instead seek to change the composition of the immigrant population so that more than half would receive visas based on "employment or skill," compared to a third who would get family-based visas and 10 percent who would be granted visas for humanitarian reasons or from countries with low levels of immigration.

The White House estimated that under the current laws, two-thirds of immigrants are admitted to reunite with family, while just over 10 percent get visas specifically for employment.

The new system mirrors those in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, which use a point system. The new U.S. plan would favor immigrants who are exceptional students, those with "extraordinary talent" and people who work in "professional and specialized vocations."

Visa applicants would receive points for age, English proficiency and offers of employment at a certain wage threshold in order to protect low-wage American workers.

The senior administration official argued it could change the current makeup of the immigrant population, which mostly comes from Mexico and Central America, but did not provide data to back up the claim.

The official said the plan would eliminate the diversity visa lottery, which Trump has frequently railed against, and replace it with a new system to bring in immigrants from underrepresented countries. The official did not offer further details about the new lottery.

Trump has frequently said without citing evidence that foreign countries send criminals and other undesirable people to the U.S., which causes crime and other social problems.

"I don't think most countries are giving us their finest. Do you agree? And that's what's happening. And it's causing tremendous problems with crime and other things," the president said at the National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service outside the Capitol on Wednesday.

Back at the White House, the official brushed aside possible concerns from immigration hard-liners, saying the administration had persuaded at least three GOP senators who favored cutting legal immigration to back its approach. The official also dismissed some restrictionist groups as full of "people have made careers out of having the system broken."

Some Republicans reportedly voiced concerns about the plan while meeting with Kushner, accounts on which the official pushed back. Some senators said any White House plan must address Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama-era program that offers deportation relief and work permits to immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors.

"I am concerned about the fate of the DACA young people, and they cannot be excluded from any immigration package," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement to The Washington Post.

The official cast the plan as a starting point designed to identify areas where Republicans agree before moving forward with more contentious issues.

"I think often in Washington people try to jump into debates without having a defined thoughtful proposal of what they think is achievable," the official said. "What we tried to do is pick the places where we can unite. And the president’s trying to lead on that."

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