White House

Trump immigration plan revamps asylum, requires work skills and learning English

President Donald Trump’s new plan to overhaul the immigration system would require immigrants to learn English, create a new visa for highly skilled workers and revamp asylum laws in a push for more merit-based decisions on who is allowed to stay in the country.

Trump declared that the number of immigrants would neither increase nor decrease. He announced that his proposal would create a new “Build America Visa” for “extraordinarily talented individuals,” high-skilled professionals and top graduate students from American universities. Democrats immediately denounced the proposal.

“Our proposal is pro-American, pro-immigrant and pro-worker,” Trump said on Thursday in the White House Rose Garden. “It’s just common sense. It will help all of our people including millions of devoted immigrants to achieve the American dream.”

The Trump immigration proposal touts the “gold standard of border security” and represents an effort to rally Republicans, who are divided on key aspects of this issue. But despite stiff enforcement measures one crucial faction, the immigration hardliners who helped Trump get elected, is already wary about whether they want to remain in the inner circle if this is the starting point.

The plan led by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, is facing push back from immigration hardliners who are concerned that it does not actually cut immigration levels as had past proposals from the Trump administration.

The plan also authorizes Customs and Border Protection to raise customs fees and fines, which will be directed to a fund to support border security and trade. A new biometric entry/exit system would also be implemented and agencies will be directed to stop issuing visas to citizens of recalcitrant countries that will not accept back deported nationals, according to a written summary obtained by McClatchy.

“It seems to me that they are trying to pack in as much stuff that hawks will like, because they know that hawks are not happy that the numbers are slated to stay the same,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, who is in regular discussions with the administration.

It also includes a mandatory federal employment verification program, such as E-Verify.

“The President’s proposal will ensure that all employees are legally authorized to work,” according to the summary.

The plan has little to no chance of going anywhere with Democrats who are already describing it as “inhumane.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham , R-South Carolina, one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, said any potential legislation has no chance of becoming law without Democratic support. And Trump’s plan, he said, doesn’t address the 11 million people here illegally, which is a priority for Democrats.

Asked if Trump is willing to work with Democrats, Graham said: “I talked to him this morning. I hope so. It might be so poisoned around here they don’t want to give him a win on anything. If they do want to work with him then he’s gotta show a willingness to work with them. He has in the past but we fell short.”

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said the administration has yet to brief them on the plan and questioned the use of the word “merit” in the immigration plan.

“It is really a condescending word,” Pelosi said. “Are they saying families are without merit? Are they saying most of the people who come to the United States in the history of our country are without merit?”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York took to the Senate floor to criticize Trump for presenting a “political document” and not a serious plan, that he said fails to address those here illegally and the so-called Dreamers who were brought to the country illegally as children. He accused the White House of pressing “partisan, radical, anti-immigrant policies” that the administration has pushed since the beginning.

“That goes to the root of what is wrong with this administration’s approach to immigration,” Schumer said. “And if they think they can repeat what they failed to do in the past — if they try to repeat it saying ‘okay we’ll let Dreamers in, but you accept a whole lot of bad things,’ which is why immigration failed last time, last year. It ain’t happening. It ain’t happening.”

One of the most influential business groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has been careful in its response. Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Officer Neil Bradley said Thursday that the Chamber appreciated the administration’s efforts, and looked forward to working with the White House, but emphasized that more issues needed to addressed, “including the creation of market-based temporary worker programs and responsibly addressing the unauthorized alien population in the U.S.”

The plan is open to modification, those familiar with the discussions say, as officials in the White House keep trying to gain more Republican support. The details shared with McClatchy show the administration is making an effort to get hardliners on board by including stronger enforcement measures such as “expediting barrier construction,” tightening asylum rules, tracking down those who overstay their visas, and revisions to legal agreements that prevent children from being detained for more than 20 days.

“My plan expedites relief for legitimate asylum seekers by screening out the merit-less claims,” Trump said. “If you have a proper claim, you will quickly be admitted. If you don’t you will be promptly returned home.”

The White House estimates that now only about 12 percent of people obtaining green cards and citizenship do so based on “employment and skill,” with the majority entering through family connections, humanitarian reasons and the diversity lottery. Under Trump’s proposal, the White House says nearly 60 percent would enter due to employment and skill.

Green card applicants would also, under the proposal, need to be financially self-sufficient, have knowledge about the U.S. government — and speak English.

“The President’s plan is designed to attract immigrants who love America, share our values and want to contribute to society,” the written summary states. “This is achieved by requiring green card applicants to pass a U.S. civics exam and demonstrate English proficiency.”

Immigration hardliners have long been wary of Kushner’s plans, fearing that his corporate ties would lead him to pursue a plan that runs counter to Trump’s “Hire American” priorities.

Late last year, Kushner helped kick off a fresh discussion on immigration that reflected a new paradigm in the White House. It appeared to be a shift away from the priorities of 2017, Trump’s first year in office, that sought to prevent the influx of foreign workers who could displace American workers in favor of a new approach preferred by more traditional Republicans, particularly those close to the corporate sector who are desperate to attract more foreign workers to fill U.S. factories and tech hubs.

Trump won the Republican nomination and the presidency in 2016 by campaigning on a promise to crack down on immigration, build a border wall and end an Obama-era program that offered the so-called Dreamers temporary, renewable work permits.

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports reduction in immigration numbers, said the immigration system is in crisis and this could be the best plan offered for the next several decades – especially if Democrats later take control of the White House and Congress.

While the numbers need to be reduced, Stein said the proposal’s limits to asylum, cuts to extended family migration, and movement toward a merit system would reduce pressure to increase immigration numbers. He said it would also increase the income earning ability of the immigrants who are admitted.

“It needs a top to bottom, root and branch reform. It needs to be simplified and just like anything else, you have to turn the water off before you can fix the plumbing,” Stein said.

David Lightman and Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.