President Trump’s challenge to Congress last week to pursue bipartisan immigration reform seemed at first glance like a presumptuous request from a president whose hard-line campaign rhetoric left little room for compromise.
But the move reflects the underlying aims of Trump and his top aides to more broadly remake U.S. immigration policy to match a nationalist ideology that views large numbers of foreigners as harmful to U.S. society. The pathway to reform, Trump told lawmakers, is a legislative overhaul of the legal immigration system toward a “merit-based” approach — a move that, if enacted, could significantly reshape the nation’s demographics and have long-lasting economic implications.
To Trump, the goal is to protect American workers by slashing immigration levels and limiting competitors he views as taking jobs and suppressing wages. To his opponents, the president is pursuing restrictionist polices that could harm an economy that relies on robust immigration for growth.
For half a century, U.S. immigration laws have favored family reunification, allowing immigrants who gain legal permanent residence to bring over their children, spouses, parents and siblings. Critics of the process have argued that “chain migration” has — along with an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants — fostered an influx of those who are competing with native-born Americans for low-wage, low-skilled jobs.
In Trump’s view, a new immigration system would curtail entry to the country among foreigners who cannot “support themselves financially,” although he did not define what that means.
“It will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages and help struggling families — including immigrant families — enter the middle class,” Trump said in his address to a joint session of Congress.
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If Trump pushes forward, his gambit will be fraught with political land mines — and the odds are stacked against him. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush were unsuccessful in enacting comprehensive immigration bills, which included much more limited aspects of the ideas Trump is proposing.
Trump seems to be an unlikely candidate to succeed where they failed, given that he has opened his presidency by angering Democrats with sweeping new measures to try to ramp up deportations and ban refugees.
But in his speech to Congress, Trump said that “real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws. If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens, then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”
The ideology underlying Trump’s approach is rooted in the worldviews of White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the former Republican senator from Alabama who was one of the fiercest opponents of comprehensive immigration reform efforts during the Obama administration.
All three have pushed restrictionist measures to sharply reduce legal immigration, arguing that foreign workers present a direct threat to Americans in blue-collar industries — the types of people who voted for Trump in large numbers.
Of the 1 million foreigners granted permanent legal residence in 2014, 647,000 — about two-thirds — received green cards based on family ties, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Just 152,000 permanent arrivals were employment-based.
In addition, 134,000 refugees and asylum seekers received green cards, 54,000 more of which were distributed in an annual diversity lottery for underrepresented countries, many in Africa.
“As a matter of federal policy — which can be adjusted at any time — millions of low-wage foreign workers are legally made available to substitute for higher-paid Americans,” Sessions wrote in a 2015 op-ed for The Washington Post.
Immigration restrictionist groups have called on Congress to slash the number of green cards by up to half. Their preferences were reflected in legislation introduced last month by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) that would bar immigrants from sponsoring siblings, adult children or other extended family members.
That bill also would end the diversity lottery and cap the number of green cards available to refugees at 50,000 per year, down from 120,000 in 2015 — something Trump has already attempted to do through an executive order.
Trump “strongly supports the broad concept,” Cotton said. The senator added that the immigration debate too often accounts more for “what’s good for the foreigner, not what’s good for American citizens. What’s good for American citizens is that we have an immigration system that rewards skills and language ability and demonstrated economic potential.”
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Pro-immigration groups view such measures as anathema to the history of the country and its diverse character. Obama often referred to the United States as a “nation of immigrants,” cautioning the public against policies that shut U.S. borders even as European countries bucked against a wave of refugees and migrants, largely from the Middle East.
Businesses also generally have supported high levels of legal immigrants to help bolster both low- and high-skilled industries.
“I think legal labor migration has been a huge boon to the economy and the American spirit,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a small-business organization.
Of Trump’s proposals, she said: “I’m very concerned they get that right. Like all countries, we do want to bring the best and brightest. But low-skilled immigration is important, too. You would never have had the housing boom without low-skilled labor; you can’t grow the economy without growing the labor force.”
To immigrant rights groups, Trump’s talk of a merit system is code for slashing legal pathways into the country and focusing them on highly educated immigrants from advanced nations — a strategy that harks back to a 1920s backlash against a wave of immigrants who entered the country during the Second Industrial Revolution.
Immigration rates plummeted after Congress restricted European Jews, Africans and Asians, rising again only after Congress implemented the family-oriented system in 1965.
“Their biggest goal is to end family immigration,” said Leon Fresco, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) who helped write a comprehensive immigration bill approved by the Senate in 2013. The package died in the House amid widespread objections from conservative Republicans.
“What they’re trying to do is use this [merit-based system] to curtail the overall number of immigrants in a way that does not appear entirely draconian,” said Fresco, now an immigration lawyer in Washington.
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The 2013 immigration bill included similar measures to reduce green cards for families and create more slots for high-skilled workers, who would have been ranked on a point system based on education level, language ability and other factors. Yet that bill also included a path to citizenship for the majority of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, appealing to Democrats and some moderate Republicans.
The question is whether Trump would be willing to endorse a similar compromise to broaden support for a merit system. During a private lunch with television news anchors ahead of his speech to Congress, the president said he was considering publicly declaring support for legal status for “dreamers,” who came to the country illegally as children.
Trump’s comments drew immediate headlines, but he did not mention such a proposal during his hour-long address.
In all, there are more than 1.5 million dreamers, and legalizing them would probably engender strong opposition from conservative Republicans and some of Trump’s base — and still might not win over enough supporters to pass a comprehensive bill through Congress.
“Every Democrat of consequence will demand as a price of entry to the room some solution, if not necessarily citizenship, to all the undocumented, or a large portion,” Fresco said. “I don’t think the dreamers alone get Democrats in the room for negotiating.”
Cristina Jiménez, executive director of United We Dream, the largest advocacy group for dreamers, scoffed at Trump’s call for a bipartisan reform effort.
“It’s outrageous that he’s saying it’s time for a compromise on immigration reform when over the last 20 years Republicans have blocked it every single time,” she said.
Besides, Jiménez said, her organization would not support a deal that protects dreamers but leaves their parents and other undocumented immigrants to the whims of Trump’s deportation efforts.
“We would never negotiate against ourselves and our community,” she said.
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.