Trump proposes sweeping overhaul of legal immigration

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The changes to the United States immigration system announced by President Trump on Thursday amount to a sweeping overhaul of the legal immigration process, intended to prioritize highly skilled workers over immigrants with family-based ties.

But the details of the plan the White House previewed, which have not yet been codified into a bill, were vague.

The proposal does not seek to change the number of green cards allocated each year (approximately 1.1 million) but rather the process by which they are granted and to whom.

The U.S. system offers four main pathways to obtaining legal permanent residency (green cards): family ties, employment, humanitarian protection and the diversity lottery.

Currently, immigrants with family living in the United States have priority and represent the largest number of green card recipients. Highly skilled workers with employer sponsorships make up just 12 percent of newly granted legal permanent residents each year. Trump’s proposal seeks to radically change those proportions, by giving nearly 60 percent of annual green card grants to immigrants with special skills or offers of employment.

Under his administration’s proposed merit-based immigration system, Trump explained, admission to the United States will be determined by points, with more points going to younger workers, people with valuable skills and advanced education, as well as immigrants with their own businesses who can create more jobs for Americans.

“We lose people who want to start companies,” Trump lamented.

He did not mention that last year, his administration killed an Obama-era initiative to allow foreign-born entrepreneurs (many of whom were educated here) create new businesses in the United States.

“We discriminate against genius. We discriminate against brilliance,” he said.

Trump’s characterization of the existing system as based on “random chance” is misleading. Contrary to his claim that 66 percent of legal immigrants are “admitted solely because they have a relative in the United States and it doesn’t really matter who that relative is,” 44 percent of green cards go to the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, while around 20 percent go to more distant relatives of citizens or legal permanent residents.

Trump said on Thursday that his new plan would “prioritize the immediate family of new Americans, spouses and children, loved ones you choose to build a life with … they go right to the front of the line where they should be.” But spouses and children already “go to the front of the line.” The difference is that Trump’s plan would actually limit family-based immigration to those two categories of relatives, eliminating opportunities for citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor other relatives, like siblings and parents.

The White House proposal would also reduce the proportion of humanitarian admissions, from 22 percent to 10 percent of the total. Prior to admission, immigrants would be required to learn English in addition to passing a civics exam.

The other part of the proposal would enhance border security, cracking down on illegal immigration and drug smuggling, and imposing further restrictions on the asylum system.

The proposal does not, however, address the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the country, including those brought to the U.S. as children by their parents — a key issue for Democrats.

In his speech in the Rose Garden, Trump did not seem concerned about the political viability of his proposal, stating that, “If for some reason, possibly political, we can’t get Democrats to approve a merit-based, high-security plan, we will get it approved after the election, when we take back the House, keep the Senate and of course, hold the presidency.”

Trump indicated that he was counting on Republican senators like Lindsey Graham, who announced a separate legislative proposal yesterday, to push through a “smaller plan” that would make immediate changes to the asylum process.

“This is the big, beautiful, bold plan, but we need something we can get done very quickly,” he said.

Reactions to Trump’s proposal were less than enthusiastic.

In an op-ed for the National Review earlier this week, Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for decreased immigration, expressed disappointment that “the proposal will notinclude any reduction in the overall level of legal immigration, not even a symbolic one.”

“This is especially important because the proposal is not really a legislative vehicle,” he wrote, but rather “more of a campaign platform, outlining the official Republican approach to immigration.” In that case, he argued, the absence of a plan to reduce legal immigration numbers “suggests the brain trust overseeing this effort is out of touch with the president’s base.”

In a statement to Yahoo News ahead of Thursday’s speech, Matthew Tragesser, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, which also favors less immigration, approved of some features of the plan, noting “it contains no amnesty or guest workers increases, and mandates E-Verify” a system for employers to confirm the legal status of workers. But he noted that the plan wouldn’t reduce overall immigration.

Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, commended the Trump administration’s efforts “to spark a much-needed debate on reforming our nation’s immigration laws and improving our nation’s security,” in a somewhat tepid statement Thursday.

“Much work remains ahead of us on several issues, including the creation of market-based temporary worker programs and responsibly addressing the unauthorized alien population in the U.S., but the Chamber looks forward to working with the White House and Congress to find bipartisan solutions to fix our nation’s broken immigration system.”

Some advocates for immigrants, such as Pili Tobar, deputy director of America’s Voice, and Tyler Moran, director of the Immigration Hub, were not onboard with Trump’s plan and declared it “dead on arrival.” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt condemned the plan as “a cynical attempt to inject racism, bigotry and xenophobia back into immigration policy-making.”

Joanne Lin, national director of advocacy and government affairs at Amnesty International USA, called the proposal “an outrageous attempt to shut doors to everyone but the most wealthy and privileged individuals, circumventing human rights and legal obligations toward asylum-seekers.”

But Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, one of the leading immigrant advocacy organizations, praised the plan for recognizing “that our country needs immigrants, and that they contribute to economic prosperity and innovation across the U.S.” calling it “a strong starting principle on which to build a conversation around fixing our immigration system.”

However, Noorani continued, “The White House and Congress need to continue to work toward immigration solutions that meet our workforce needs; address Dreamers, the undocumented, and Temporary Protected Status recipients; keep families together; and effectively address the humanitarian situation at our southern border while ensuring our nation’s safety.”

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