Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, is faculty chair of the homeland security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
President Trump’s new immigration proposal, announced in the Rose Garden Thursday, was touted as a complete overhaul of how we decide who gets into our country and under what conditions.
In reality, it’s a collection of platitudes put together by son-in-law Jared Kushner that avoids the hardest and most emotional aspects of the immigration debate. What was unveiled instead was a breezy tour through a happy land where hard problems are ignored, history is glossed over and the cruel policy of separating families is given a magical resolution.
This isn’t a plan worthy of serious discussion, a point underscored when some of the Republican senators who Kushner briefed earlier this week were left feeling that the White House had not done its homework. So thin on solutions when it comes to our real problems, it’s fair to say this plan is worthy of Instagram, the social media site where everything is great, everyone is skinny and nothing bad ever happens. And we move quickly to the next thing.
Kushner’s deep insight is that he would like a lot more smart, fancy, tech-savvy and beautiful people (models are presently considered merit-based) to come to the United States, and a lot fewer unskilled folks from you-know-where. Everyone could collect points by being an “extraordinary talent,” having a “specialized” job or being an “exceptional” student. Kind of like a sorority.
The idea here is that the United States has for too long favored family ties and country-based immigration quotas. Instead, Kushner wants the vast majority of immigrants to be a lot like what he imagines himself to be: smart, hard-working, talented and “financially self-sufficient,” as Trump noted in his Rose Garden remarks. Trump and Kushner are pro-immigrant, but not pro-just-any-immigrant. They are really pro-IPO-immigrant.
Turning those immigrants into citizens would require applicants to rack up “eligibility points.” Much of this is not new: Those seeking citizenship already have to pass tests, undergo health-care screenings and subject themselves to criminal background checks. Kushner’s plan would also favor those with strong English proficiency, job offers and high educational attainment. None of these qualities is inherently bad, but low-skilled workers are still badly needed in this country. And when the plan invokes a vague notion of “patriotic assimilation” as a criterion for citizenship, it’s difficult not to wonder who exactly will be determining what that loaded phrase might mean.
Kushner’s plan would reduce the number of green cards given to applicants who seek to reunite with family, a practice known as chain migration. This seems like a sacrifice, given that his stepmother-in-law, the first lady, had her parents come here presumably under that process.
On the sticky issue of border enforcement, the plan anticipates modernized ports of entry and reinforced barriers between the United States and Mexico. In general, the problem at our borders can be solved by a greater commitment to — wait for it — technology. Fancy, super-high-tech stuff can solve everything. The root economic and social problems that drive people out of their home countries and toward all the ports of entry are not addressed here.
Fortunately, as announced by Trump, the new effort would rapidly “reunite unaccompanied children with their families back home.” This is an important goal, but the vagueness in the plan and description is so unserious as to be laughable. Which “unaccompanied children” are they talking about? Is it teens who arrive here alone or the children who were separated from their parents at the border? That, the plan does not address. And if we don’t yet know how many families were separated or where everyone is who should really be with their parents, the plan doesn’t dwell on it. It’s a new day.
The harder problems — a plan for citizenship status for the 11 million undocumented people who already reside here, or a plan for the “dreamers” whose lawful status was rescinded by Trump and who live in limbo — aren’t even mentioned. Kushner has claimed he likes to think of himself as unencumbered by the policy debates and the ancient divisions of Washington. That’s one way to describe ignoring 11 million people.
In some ways, this proposal is a redemption play, distancing Kushner and Trump from the horrors of immigration policy led by White House hard-liner and family-separation guru Stephen Miller. It is also an attempt to let everyone know that Republicans can be for something other than a wall.
That helps to explain why a more detailed plan, with a legislative framework, doesn’t exist yet. When it will emerge is unclear, but even the president acknowledged Thursday that it cannot be enacted now. That will have to wait, he said, until after the election in 2020.