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Trump’s plan to overhaul legal immigration draws cool reception

The Post's David Nakamura analyzes President Trump's immigration plan, unveiled on May 16. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump on Thursday unveiled an outline for reshaping how immigrants are admitted into the country — seeking to promote a more comprehensive approach to immigration ahead of a reelection campaign in which Democrats plan to portray his hard-line approach at the border as racist.

The new proposal, an effort led primarily by his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, appears destined for the congressional dustbin, with no clear strategy from the White House to turn it into law and essentially no support from Democrats who control half of Capitol Hill.

But the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill have emphasized that the plan — few details of which have been publicly released — is primarily to showcase the kind of immigration that Trump and Republicans can support ahead of next year’s elections.

President Trump unveiled his "merit-based” immigration system on May 16, saying that if adopted, it would be "the pride of our nation”. (Video: Reuters)

“We are proposing an immigration plan that puts the jobs, wages and safety of American workers first,” Trump said from the White House Rose Garden in front of an audience of Cabinet officials and GOP lawmakers. “Our proposal is pro-American, pro-immigrant and pro-worker. It’s just common sense.”

The president’s bid to sketch out a vision that could appeal beyond his conservative base represented a potentially risky shift at a time when he is eyeing a tough reelection campaign in which he believes immigration will play a major role.

In campaign rallies, Trump has continued to paint many immigrants as dangerous, and his effort Thursday to balance his hard-line tone exposed him to criticism from conservatives, while failing to insulate him from attacks among Democrats.

That dynamic was quickly apparent after Trump finished his speech and left the Rose Garden without taking questions from reporters. On Twitter, conservative commentator Ann Coulter, a former Trump backer who has split with him over the lack of progress on a border wall, slammed the plan for failing to cut the annual level of more than 1 million green cards issued a year.

“NO WALL. KEEPS SAME MASSIVE LEVELS OF LEGAL IMMIGRATION. And this is the rube-bait campaign document, not even a serious bill,” wrote Coulter, echoing the sentiments of other immigration hawks who would like to cut the overall number of immigrants to the United States.

On the other side of the aisle, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called Trump’s offering a “dead-on-arrival plan that is not a remotely serious proposal.” And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) slammed it as a “despicable abdication of moral authority” that would have kept Blumenthal’s own immigrant father from entering the United States.

In a sign of sensitivity to criticisms from immigration hard-liners, Trump’s advisers continue to look at measures behind the scenes such as the Insurrection Act, an arcane law that allows the president to employ the military to combat lawlessness or rebellion, to remove illegal immigrants, officials said. The idea of using the law was first reported by the Daily Caller, a conservative news outlet, after Trump finished his speech Thursday afternoon.

In the 25-minute address, Trump sought to frame his plan — which also includes revisions to border security and asylum policies — as a sensible modernization of the U.S. immigration system, while casting his political rivals as unreasonable for opposing his agenda. 

“Today, we are presenting a clear contrast,” Trump said. “Democrats are proposing open borders, lower wages and frankly, lawless chaos.” 

The new White House proposal does not change the net level of green cards allocated each year, but rather prioritizes high-skilled workers over those with family members who are U.S. citizens. It would allow applicants to rack up eligibility based on factors such as age, ability to speak English, job offers and educational background under what Trump called a new “Build America” visa.

But the proposal also sidesteps some major components of the nation’s immigration system that can be far more complex and controversial to resolve, such as the fate of the estimated 11 million immigrants without legal status and visas for temporary, low-skilled workers — issues that have divided the Republican Party and pit the business community against labor unions.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said earlier Thursday that the plan does not include what to do with “dreamers” — young, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children — because the issue is too divisive. And in a briefing for Republican aides on Thursday, Mercedes Schlapp, another White House communications official, argued that Trump has repeatedly put forward proposals to resolve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and that it was Democrats who have refused to cooperate — although Trump in exchange has demanded immigration restrictions that were a nonstarter with most Democrats and some Republicans.

Internally, a number of White House aides are skeptical the plan has any chance of passing and believe the president holding a Rose Garden speech on it was a waste of his time, when he should be promoting trade or working on international affairs.

Kushner’s team has kept the plan “close hold,” one senior White House official said, “which is good, so no one else gets blamed for this.” The official, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Meanwhile, Kushner’s team has tried, with mixed results, to build support for the proposal.  During a Roosevelt Room briefing with administration supporters Wednesday afternoon, he described the new proposal as a “starting point,” according to an attendee, and the president’s son-in-law said the White House was not under any illusions that this would easily get through Congress. 

Kushner brought economic models to show how high-skilled immigrants could help the country. Trump, who arrived midway during the meeting, spoke for more than an hour but appeared most interested with his growing trade war against China, according to people in the room. He veered from topic to topic, at one point alleging that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had “conflicts” of interest and treated him unfairly. At another point, he talked about the 2020 presidential candidates, labeling Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders the front-runners, and bragged about pardons he planned to release that evening.

Trump emphasized in that meeting that Democrats are “tough,” expressing admiration for how Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) “hold their caucus together. They all hang together.” Some of Pelosi’s members say erratic things, but they vote how she says to vote, Trump said, wishing Republicans would do the same.

Neither of the top two Republicans in Congress — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) nor House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — issued statements supporting Trump’s proposal after his speech. McCarthy noted to reporters earlier in the day that the new plan was “not a complete immigration bill.”

“But it’s a base,” McCarthy, a close Trump ally, added. “It’s something we can work from.” 

McConnell, for his part, was noncommittal.

“We are a nation of immigrants and we must preserve that rich part of who we are. But we are a nation of laws,” McConnell said in a statement. Emphasizing that he wants to work on legislation specifically addressing the influx of migrants at the southern border, the majority leader added: “I look forward to reviewing the president’s proposal.”

Trump appeared to acknowledge his plan would not pass Congress immediately — arguing that an all-Republican Washington would approve it if the party wins back the House and keeps control of the Senate and the White House in the 2020 elections.

Unlike with previous White House proposals, the administration took pains to ensure that the net number of green cards — which grant foreigners legal permanent residency in the United States — stayed the same as it is currently so that the overall level of immigration would not be cut. 

Under the new system, about 57 percent of green cards would be issued based on professional skills and education, compared to about 12 percent now. About two-thirds of green cards are currently based on family ties, but the new White House proposal would slash that percentage down to about a third. 

The new system, as White House officials described it, would create a two-step process that begins with a civics test and a background check. Then green card applicants would be evaluated on the new points system.

White House officials who briefed GOP aides earlier Thursday — Schlapp and Brooke Rollins, who works closely with Kushner — asked them to avoid using the phrase “chain migration,” a term often invoked by the president himself to refer to the process of sponsoring immigrants, particularly parents and siblings, based on familial relations, according to a briefing attendee. Trump has focused on the issue despite first lady Melania Trump’s parents becoming U.S. citizens after completing a years-long immigration process that experts say appears to be the result of “chain migration.”

At least one Senate Republican didn’t heed the White House’s advice. 

“We should welcome the opportunity to attract and hire the top talent globally,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said Thursday afternoon. “However, more loopholes must be closed to end chain migration and to bring the asylum-seeking process under control.” 

There is no legislative text, but the White House said it would like all 53 GOP senators to co-sponsor it once the proposal is released in bill form. At one point, Rollins said the Department of Homeland Security would get involved in the plan later, which left Hill aides curious why it hadn’t been previously. 

Democrats on Thursday also took issue with the White House’s characterization of the kind of immigrants who bring “merit” to the United States.

“It is really a condescending word,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference on Thursday morning. “Are they saying family is without merit?”

John Wagner, Felicia Sonmez and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.