The White House is renewing a contentious battle over legal immigration, looking beyond toughened enforcement policies and President Trump’s push for a border wall to dive into the thorny issue of how many — and what kind of — immigrants should be admitted into the United States.
Trump met privately with a dozen GOP senators on Tuesday as the administration — led primarily by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser — drafts a proposal to transform the existing system into one that prioritizes immigrants based on their ability to immediately contribute to the economy.
But with little support among Democrats for such a dramatic overhaul, few expect any substantial changes this year to the current laws granting green cards — leaving the effort as primarily a political document that Trump and Republicans can rally behind.
“The White House has already said we’re moving in the direction of trying to make a proposal about something the president can be for on immigration,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said. “The perception is he’s against this, or we’re against that. And that’s not the truth.”
Kushner is pitching an overhaul to the legal immigration system that wouldn’t change the overall number of green cards issued per year, according to Senate Republicans briefed on the matter, but would ensure a significantly larger proportion is set aside for immigrants based on their professional skills and education backgrounds, rather than on family ties.
Senators expect the administration’s new immigration plan to address border security and visa overstays in some fashion but not the 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Republicans in touch with the White House in recent weeks also said the administration has also looked at modernizing the visa system for temporary guest workers, such as farmworkers and hospitality employees, and tightening asylum policy so that fewer migrants trying to claim refuge in the United States would qualify.
But changing asylum policy and temporary guest worker programs barely came up in the hour-long meeting at the White House on Tuesday, where administration officials had assembled a dozen conservative senators who largely align with Trump policies. The particular plan briefed to senators on Tuesday does not address temporary guest workers, according to a senior administration official.
Kushner presented the broad contours of the proposal, senators said, and the administration stressed that it wants to fix a complicated system of granting visas that had become more complex with each subsequent new law.
“It was described in the meeting as a series of layers of paint, and they’ve just been painted over and over and over again,” said one person in attendance on Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private meeting. “This is an attempt to strip it back down to the wood and start over.”
Trump was largely favorable to the immigration plan as detailed by Kushner, according to senators.
The group discussed the White House’s main concept of continuing to admit more than 1 million immigrants on green cards per year, as well as how much value to attach to various qualifications such as an immigrant’s education level, vocational skills and age. The White House has studied merit-based point systems in Canada, Australia, Singapore and Japan, among other nations, the senior administration official said.
“They want to keep [the overall immigration numbers] level to deprive the Democrats of a political argument,” said another person at the meeting, which was held in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
The proposal would also improve technology at ports of entry to ensure everything coming into the United States is scanned.
Some Republicans did have questions. For instance, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) pressed administration officials on how they would address the per-country caps on immigrants that critics say aggravate an already lengthy backlog of high-skilled visa applicants from countries such as India.
Administration officials told Cramer they were aware of the issue and that their proposal would ensure high-skilled immigrants from larger countries would not be punished by being forced to wait longer for their green cards — but that foreign talent from smaller nations would also get a fair shot.
“I wouldn’t call it low-hanging fruit,” Cramer said of the administration’s overall immigration plan in an interview. “But I also think it’s in the believable, doable category.”
Administration officials on Tuesday did not indicate when they would release the White House plan, according to senators.
The broader concept of the green-card changes is drawn from a bill reintroduced last month by some of Trump’s most conservative allies that would no longer allow certain family members — such as siblings, adult children and parents of U.S. citizens — to be sponsored for permanent residency.
In return, more green cards would be issued based on credentials such as education, job offers and entrepreneurship, although the Raise Act — sponsored by Perdue and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) — is more aggressive in reducing overall immigration levels, according to one of the people in attendance who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
Even while Republican senators largely applauded the administration’s plan, Trump began to face fierce pushback from influential organizations who have long advocated cutting the number of immigrants admitted into the United States.
One of them, Numbers USA, tweeted Tuesday afternoon: “Early indications are that Kushner wants to cut some family categories while boosting both skilled and unskilled employment visas. The only plan that would raise the pay of *American* workers is immigration reduction.”
Revamping the nation’s byzantine immigration laws is a new focus for Kushner, who has been riding on the momentum of a successful effort to revise sentencing laws and better rehabilitate low-level offenders late last year. Amid the partial government shutdown this year, Trump tasked Kushner — who is married to the president’s eldest daughter, Ivanka — to take the lead in crafting parts of the administration’s immigration agenda.
For weeks, Kushner and other White House officials have briefed key Republican senators and congressional aides on the emerging contours of the legal immigration plan, although most of the details have been tightly held within Kushner’s circle.
The senior White House adviser made his way to Capitol Hill on April 10 to detail his proposal to key GOP senators, including Sens. John Cornyn (Tex.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lee, a Kushner ally who worked on the successful criminal justice effort, hosted the meeting.
White House aides also subsequently briefed lawmakers and congressional staff with a slide-show presentation at the Capitol before the Easter break, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
White House economists have been working on models to determine exactly how much legal immigration is necessary to spur additional economic growth after accounting for population increases within the United States, Perdue said.
Graham, a close administration ally, said last week that he plans on releasing his own plan designed to address the recent surge of migration from Central America that has driven up the number of border apprehensions and infuriated Trump.
Democrats, who have long advocated a more generous immigration policy and have declined piecemeal fixes to the system, probably will protest the kind of changes the administration is seeking. Just three Senate Democrats backed an earlier version of Trump’s immigration plan in a series of test votes in February 2018, and only one of them — Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) — is still in office.
“I know this: Their plan ain’t gonna happen until we sit down and talk” about how to address undocumented immigrants, Graham said. “I’ve learned that after about 14 times dealing with it. But I give them a lot of credit for coming up with a plan.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said he also spoke several weeks ago with Kushner on immigration and stressed that curbing legal migration, particularly by preventing certain family members from obtaining green cards, would be a nonstarter for his party.
“I’m troubled when they want to limit legal migration,” Durbin said. “You have people who have literally waited 10 years or longer to be reunited with their family, and now, if they don’t fit into the narrow categories of this merit immigration, they may never have a chance in their entire lives to come to the United States and join their families.”
Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.