President Trump has spent the first half of his presidency pushing aggressively for policies that he believes will halt the flow of Central American migrants across the U.S. southern border. But he’s not opposed to immigration, his aides say. He just wants a different kind of immigrant.
More specifically, according to the plan described Wednesday by senior administration officials, Trump wants English-speaking doctors or engineers with high-salaried job offers and the ability to pass an AP civics test.
“Professional specialized vocations — that’s the heart of the proposal,” a senior administration official said Wednesday in a meeting with Washington Post reporters and members of the editorial board.
The administration wants doctors, nurses, engineers and computer programmers; “individuals who provide a cure for cancer or build that first subdivision on Mars,” the official said. It wants the next Nelson Mandela.
“We see immigration as really a competitiveness issue,” another senior official said. “And our hope is that we can create a system that really is in line and allows us to be competitive with the rest of the world.”
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about the White House approach to the policy.
The Trump administration’s latest proposal for immigration restructuring, unfurled by the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner in meetings with Republican lawmakers this week, seeks to recalibrate American immigration around a point system.
Immigrant hopefuls would be deemed eligible and competitive based on the points they accrue through a set of criteria, including educational specialty or degree, age, English proficiency and high-salaried job offer. They would need to show that they “like our way of life,” a senior official said, and that they are capable of “patriotic assimilation.” They could demonstrate that quality by passing a civics test much like the kind someone might encounter at a U.S. college.
Trump — who has called Central American migrants “animals” and has denigrated African countries — has broached the concept of a “merit-based” system before. His aides on Wednesday sought to portray the plan as one that would eliminate bias for nationality by doing away with the diversity visa lottery, limiting family-based visas to spouses and children, and eliminating country quotas.
“This system would open it up to all corners of the globe,” one official said. “So, you could see doctors from Malawi coming here. You could see engineers from Malaysia coming here.”
But it is unclear whether the proposal — the precise details of which have yet to be released — could pass muster in Congress.
The description offered by administration officials closely resembles an earlier bill, backed by the White House, that was introduced in 2017 by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.). That bill also advanced a point system, but it never attracted wider support.
The concept of a merit-based system has found appeal on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who supported a more recent bipartisan bill that would eliminate the country quotas for immigrant visas while also increasing the number of available green cards, said his state could benefit significantly from a system that encourages more high-skilled immigration.
“My state of North Dakota is experiencing a workforce shortage, needing more physicians, engineers, and software developers,” Cramer said in a statement. “The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act lifts arbitrary per-
country caps because the United States should not penalize highly skilled legal immigrants for where they were born. At the same time, I support plans put forward that include diversity safeguards to ensure smaller countries do not face discrimination.”
The administration’s plan would favor people such as Ashish Patel, a 40-year-old computer engineer in Utah, who came to the United States in 2005 with fluent English, an advanced degree and a high-salaried job offer. Or Sri Obulareddy, an oncologist in Washington state. Both are Indian nationals who have been waiting more than eight years for green cards, and both were championed in a recent opinion piece by Cramer and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
But critics say a point-based system is impractical and runs counter to the basic laws of economics.
“My read on this now is that this type of proposed system would recruit skilled engineers, but not skilled farmworkers,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy group. “The fact is, our economy needs both.”
Another expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he has consulted the administration on its immigration policy, said the new system would rank people based on how talented they are as opposed to the current system, which has employers requesting individual people from other countries and explaining specifically why they need them.
“This would make it more focused by the foreign nationals themselves,” the expert said. “But the problem with this is you have the possibility — or probability — that you end up with 100,000 marine biologists. Well, good for us, what do we do with that?”
Administration officials didn’t address how the points breakdown would work or whether there would be a minimum number of points that would make people eligible for visas. The similar, previous bill, the RAISE Act, would have created a 30-point minimum for immigrant eligibility, but no threshold that would guarantee citizenship, effectively pitting immigrants against immigrants in a contest of relative value.
Even then, someone such as Patel would not have been able to reach the 30-point minimum for eligibility under the RAISE Act because he was too young to get the maximum age points when he applied, and his salary offer — while higher than the median household income in Utah at the time — was still too low to win him points.
Patel supports the idea of eliminating country quotas; like many in the backlog and many lawmakers, he thinks it is unfair that his nationality should be held against him. As he and immigration attorneys have pointed out, if he were from an underrepresented country, rather than India, he would have gotten his green card years ago. But he is also skeptical of any immigration plan that doesn’t have bipartisan support.
He said he doesn’t know the details of the administration’s latest plan, “and that’s why I can’t really say whether merit-based would be better than family-based. That’s why bipartisan is the best solution.”