President Donald Trump on Thursday will unveil a new immigration proposal designed to move the United States to a system that would admit immigrants based on merit and not family ties, as well as boost security at the southern border.
But there are already signs the plan — Trump’s second one on immigration in two years — is unlikely to get the support from a Congress that has wrestled with the issue for years. The plan, drafted largely by the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, would not change the overall number of immigrants allowed in the United States legally or address the illegal immigration population.
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On Thursday afternoon at the White House, Trump will deliver the broad outlines of a offering, which is aimed in part at countering the perception that he is anti-immigrant.
“During the last couple years I’ve heard a lot of people try to explain the president’s immigration policy,” a senior White House official said. “And a lot of what people say is not reflective of what he says to his team and to us. What we have put together is the president’s immigration policy.”
Kushner has spent days trying to gather support for the effort from Republican senators, presenting the plan to a small group earlier this week and to the Senate Republican conference at the group’s weekly policy lunch Tuesday.
“I think people sort of liked the idea of merit-based immigration as proposed,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a key Trump ally on Capitol Hill. “The border security plan seemed solid. We all know you’re not going to pass this without dealing with the other aspects of immigration. But the point of getting the party united behind a merit-based immigration proposal and border security is a significant step. But that’s sort of starting a larger conversation.”
But Kushner has spent little time selling the plan to House Democrats, who control the lower chamber and want to focus instead on protecting the so-called Dreamers, or young immigrants who entered the United States legally — a component that it not in the plan. And no Democrats have come forward indicating their willingness to work with the White House.
“It’s a useful thing to think about, what an immigration plan should look like in terms of what should American immigration policy be,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “And I think it’s a very positive thing for Republicans to say we are the party of legal immigration and this is how we can make it better. I think that would distinguish us from the Democrats who seem to be happy with the status quo, which I think is pretty hard to explain.”
A Senate Republican aide said there’s nothing in the current plan that is meant to appeal to Democrats, even though Kushner is casting this as the administration’s “opening offer.” The aide said there’s an appetite among Democrats to fix the crisis at the border, but that the Trump plan is unlikely to gain significant traction.
“This is different in the sense that there was an on-the-shelf bipartisan agreement for criminal justice reform, and that’s just not the case here,” the aide said, referencing a recent bill that passed with strong support from both parties.
Trump made cracking down on immigration the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, calling for a border wall and ending an Obama-era program that allows temporary, renewable work permits for the Dreamers. But Congress failed to pass a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws last year when both chambers were controlled by Republicans, making it extremely unlikely a divided Congress would grant Trump a victory as he launches his re-election campaign.
The plan would not change the number of immigrants entering the country, officials said, but would instead change their composition. It would shift the country to a points-based system where applicants seeking “Build America” visas are scored on attributes including education, English-speaking ability and an existing offer of employment from an American company or organization.
It also may eliminate the diversity visa lottery program, which offers 50,000 visas annually to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. Family and diversity visas would be reallocated to employment-based applicants, according to two people familiar with the plan.
The U.S. admits more than 1 million lawful permanent residents each year, but only 140,000 come through employment categories. The rest are relatives, refugees, or immigrants who arrive through the diversity visa lottery.
In recent days, the White House has talked of adding other pieces to the proposal to try to mollify hawkish immigration activists: a mandatory nationwide E-Verify system to check the immigration status of workers, as well as changes to asylum and detention laws to discourage migrants from seeking refuge at the border. The plan could try to override a federal court settlement to allow children to be detained for longer than 20 days, and raise the standard to pass a “credible fear” interview, the first stage in certain asylum claims.
The Trump administration has argued that a flood of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has necessitated changes to federal immigration laws. Border Patrol arrested nearly 99,000 migrants at the southwest border in April, part of a surge in recent months that resembles higher levels of illegal immigration from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. While the Trump administration seeks to detain the maximum number of suspected border crossers, many have been released amid a crunch for processing and detention space. The Pew Research Center estimates that roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the U.S.
The Senate GOP aide said lawmakers don’t expect to see a more detailed plan for at least another week as the White House is still working to put this in legislative text.
On Wednesday, Graham said he will seek support from Democrats for a bill that would limit access to asylum and make it easier to deport and detain Central American children.
Gabby Orr, Ted Hesson and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.