by Rachel Bovard
President Trump on Thursday rolled out his administration’s first, substantive take on immigration reform, and the reactions have been what you’d expect.
Democrats and some Republicans immediately panned the proposal because it doesn’t provide amnesty to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (otherwise known as President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty), or to anyone else.
Republicans, in general, were more circumspect. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave a noncommittal response, with a nod toward the dispute he is currently embroiled in with Democrats, who continue to block the administration’s request for more humanitarian funding at the border. (Yes, the same party who lambasts the president for his supposed lack of humanitarian care for migrants also refuses to give him funding to do exactly that.)
But a review of the plan itself, which deals largely with the legal immigration system, suggests that it fills a critical role for Republicans.
For years, the GOP has run on “border security first,” and then a “merit-based” immigration with very little agreement on the specifics of what those terms mean. Past Republican proposals, rather, have come in the form of massive, multifaceted plans which die horrible public deaths due to their frontward concessions on amnesty. (Recall the doomed McCain-Kennedy “Z-visa” of 2007.)
Trump’s plan, or, as he calls it, a “big, beautiful, bold” immigration reform proposal, takes a more streamlined approach, and attempts to solidify how Republicans would rewrite and reform the legal immigration system, if given the chance. Their plan focuses reforms on key areas:
- Instituting a merit-based system to address the 1.1 million people who come here legally each year, with a points system that emphasizes education, employment prospects, age, and English language ability.
- Eliminating the diversity lottery, and restricting family-based immigration (a.k.a. chain migration) by limiting family members a citizen can sponsor to just the nuclear family (spouses and children under age 18).
- Placing physical barriers at 33 key points along the border, which are identified as key crossing points for illegal drugs and human trafficking.
- Modernizing ports of entry, and ensuring that all vehicles and people are screened.
- Reforming asylum procedures and closing loopholes, as the president said Thursday, to make sure frivolous claims are not displacing legitimate ones.
Liberal groups decried the plan immediately as “dead on arrival” and based on White House policies of “chaos and cruelty.”
But it’s worth pointing out that the merit reforms, in particular, would put the U.S. in line with the rest of the world—which should actually be a point of attraction for the Left, which frequently admonishes the U.S. to “be more like them” (e.g.: to defer to international policies).
As it stands now, the U.S. admits far more family-based immigrants than most countries. This is due largely to chain migration, which allows legal permanent residents to sponsor their immediate family members, as well as siblings, adult children and their families, and other members of their extended families. As a result, 66 percent of our legal immigration entries are family based. The closest country in comparison, New Zealand, only allows 35 percent of its entrants to be family based.
Our largely family-based immigration system puts us upside down in comparison to similar countries, whose systems are merit based.
Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan all have some version of a merit-based system which prioritizes education, employment and language ability. Australia, in particular, admits 68 percent of its immigrant entrants based on employment and skill. Japan admits just over half on a similar metric.
Trump’s reforms, if implemented, would move America to 57 percent of annual entries based on employment and skill, and 33 percent based on extended family ties (nuclear family ties would be given priority).
Or, as Trump put it in his Rose Garden speech on Thursday:
Companies are moving offices to other countries because our immigration rules prevent them from retaining highly skilled and even, if I might, totally brilliant people. We discriminate against genius. We discriminate against brilliance. We won’t anymore, once we get this passed.
The asylum fixes, too, address critical needs. Customs and Border Patrol statistics show that over half of the nearly 100,000 illegal crossers in April are coming as family units, and claiming asylum. Most of these asylum claims don’t rise to the level of admittance—after a formal asylum hearing, only about 10 to 20 percent of claims are granted—but our outdated laws mean that these families are released into the interior of the country in the meantime, sometimes residing in the United States for years.
Closing these asylum loopholes, and giving CBP the tools necessary for orderly processing, means that our border enforcement will finally be able to separate legitimate asylum claims from bogus ones. In other words, the system will finally be able to prioritize assistance for those who truly need it.
The president’s proposal has come under criticism from those on the Right who wish to see an overall reduction in immigration to the United States. The Trump proposal also doesn’t address temporary guest worker visas, or the perennial Gordian knot of immigration policy—what to do with all of the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants who are already here.
For these and other reasons, the mainstream press and practically everyone else has labeled the bill as something that will “never pass.” It’s true that possibility of passage is an important metric. But I’d suggest that, for this policy, perhaps there is another purpose to be served.
If the goal of this White House policy was to put a thoughtful, detailed stake in the ground as to what Republicans mean when they say “legal immigration reform,” “closing asylum loopholes,” and “merit-based immigration,” it’s largely succeeded. Outside of Senator Tom Cotton’s RAISE Act (from which the White House proposal liberally borrows), there have been very few detailed outlines for how Republicans would actually change the laws they say need reform. Now there is one.
Moreover, in putting together a substantive, educated proposal, the White House is drawing a clear distinction between themselves and Democrats, whose immigration proposals still largely consist of wild-eyed opposition to Trump, and rampant virtue signaling while promoting open borders policies.
It’s a critical distinction between the parties that smart Republicans should appreciate. Whether they agree with the entirety of the plan or not, the GOP finally has a serious proposal for securing the border and instituting legal immigration reform. And that could be a valuable tool heading into 2020, where sometimes passage of legislation matters less than being able to explain, in detail, what you actually mean.
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Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters. In the House, she worked as senior legislative assistant to Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-Il.), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas). She is the former director of policy services for the Heritage Foundation.