Editorial: Trump’s weak immigration proposal should be a prompt for actual comprehensive reform

Cabinet members and senators listen to President Trump announce a new immigration proposal in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 16.
(Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images)

The immigration reform plan put forward by the White House on Thursday is a woefully insufficient answer to a terribly difficult problem.

Under the plan President Trump outlined, the government would issue fewer family reunification visas to would-be residents and more merit-based visas weighted toward younger people with “valuable skills.” They must speak English and pass an American civics course before admission, and it would help if they have a job offer or an advanced degree. Overall immigration levels would stay the same at about 1.1 million people per year. There would be some unspecified changes to the criteria for who deserves asylum, and there would be some new money for enhanced border security screening, among other tidbits.

But given how much the Trump administration has focused on immigration as a core issue, it’s remarkable how unambitious the plan is. Crafted by Trump’s inexperienced-yet-empowered son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the proposal is so eager to find compromises among Republicans that it ignores most of the issues that matter to Democrats, such as protections for the so-called Dreamers, who were brought to this country as children.

Given how much the Trump administration has focused on immigration as a core issue, it’s remarkable how unambitious the plan is.


So the president has offered a 2020 campaign plank, not a serious proposal to address the problems. And it even fails there: Immigration hard-liners have already panned the plan as insufficiently tough. Democrats (whose support would be crucial in the House of Representatives) are likely to ignore it completely.

That would be too bad. Congress — especially congressional Democrats — ought to step up and offer some serious counterproposals that would move the nation toward comprehensive reform. Chances are slim at the moment that immigration hard-liners would accept such a plan — or anything short of severe reductions in new immigration and an expanded crackdown on people living here without permission. But public polls show that most Americans believe current legal immigration levels are acceptable or should be increased, that longtime residents of the country should be afforded a path to legal status with conditions, and that the Dreamers should be afforded a chance for citizenship.

Even Republicans support a path to legal status for the Dreamers, and, despite Trump’s constant maligning of immigrants, a majority of Republicans are OK with current immigration levels. Further, the notion among some hard-liners that 10.7 million immigrants here illegally could be deported without causing critical damage to the economy, communities and families is absurd. As is the idea that a border wall can be built high enough and long enough to stop people from entering the country. Besides, a wall misses several important points: Most people crossing without permission in recent days have been seeking asylum and, by law, must be given an opportunity to be heard. Further, most people who are undocumented actually arrived here legally by plane or through a regular border crossing but then failed to leave when their visas expired. How does a wall address that reality?

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Broadly speaking, the government has the right and duty to determine who gets to enter the country and under what circumstances. Current immigration policies are decades old and there are legitimate discussions to be had about whether we should make room for more people based on their education level and job skills, or whether we should cut back on the number or type of relatives an immigrant can sponsor for entry. Should foreign students graduating from American universities be given a chance to remain in the country and apply their skills here? What should the criteria be for determining who gets a chance to apply for legal status? Must they have a clean record? Must they have American spouses or dependents?

It’s also reasonable to discuss fair, humane ways of reducing illegal entry. Not by separating parents from their children or by tossing more people into detention or by building an unrealistic wall, but by setting meaningful immigration limits and finding rational ways to enforce them through use of border guards, technology and cross-border cooperation in blocking smuggling routes.

The nation had its last serious shot at a compromise in 2013 when the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” bill, which ran more than 800 pages, passed the Senate but died in the Republican-controlled House. It’s hard to imagine that such a compromise could now be reached with the current administration, or, for that matter, with the anti-immigration hard-liners or the far-left voices who have trouble balancing a humanitarian impulse to help the world’s poor against the legitimate interests of the nation to control its border.

But that polarization doesn’t lessen the need for a serious effort. The first step is to find a way to marginalize the outliers and craft a middle path to some compromise resolutions. Maybe Democrats will have to accept a calibrated shift to more employment-based visas, and more security at the border. Maybe Republicans will have to accept some sort of amnesty for those living in the country illegally. Those are heavy lifts in this era of hyper-partisanship. Still, congressional leaders could set an example by creating a bipartisan, bicameral committee to hammer out the framework for comprehensive reform. The nation is hungry for it.


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