Trump tries another immigration reset ahead of 2020

Cabinet members and senators look on as President Trump announces a new immigration proposal in the Rose Garden of the White House.
(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump deployed all the trappings of a Rose Garden ceremony to pitch an incomplete and almost certainly doomed immigration plan Thursday, pushing forward even as his efforts to make progress on his other big 2020 campaign issue — trade — faced new obstacles.

A military string band played, and rows of chairs were arranged for White House staff and conservative senators.

“Today we are presenting a clear contrast with Democrats, who are proposing open borders, lower wages and, frankly, lawless chaos,” said Trump, who read mostly from a teleprompter during the 25-minute speech. “We are proposing an immigration plan that puts the jobs, wages and safety of American workers first.”

The plan, for which the White House did not release any written text or even an outline, focuses on border infrastructure — additional barriers, checkpoints and other enforcement tools. It also would shift the legal immigration system away from the preference for people who have family in the United States to one based on what the administration defines as “merit” — specific job skills, advanced degrees or the money to start a new company.


Trump has been unable to make a deal on immigration, his top campaign issue, despite sporadic overtures from Democratic lawmakers and, for his two first years, Republican control of Congress. His trade agenda ran into one of its biggest hurdles to date over the last week when negotiations on a pact with China devolved into a trade war that threatens to slow the economy.

Despite such setbacks, Trump has been eager to use the stature of the Rose Garden to convince supporters that he is winning, and keeping his promises, even when those victory parties have been premature.

At the beginning of his term, for example, Trump notably invited congressional leaders and a military band to celebrate the House’s vote to repeal President Obama’s healthcare law, only to see the effort crumble weeks later in the Senate. In February, he dramatically signed an official emergency declaration in an attempt to bypass Congress to fund a wall along the southern border, but no new miles of border fencing have been completed.

Thursday’s event was intended to bolster Trump’s arguments that Congress’ attempts to work with him on immigration have been insincere at best and, at worst, aimed at resisting his efforts to fix a system that he has cast as a threat to national security and economic prosperity.


Democrats and some Republicans have said Trump is the stubborn one, refusing a compromise offer last year that would have allotted $25 billion for the wall because hard-line allies opposed the other part of the deal — a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, people who came to the country illegally as children, as well as their extended families.

The president explicitly acknowledged Thursday that his latest plan lacked the Democratic support it would need to get through Congress and was in part a plug for his reelection in 2020.

“If for some reason, possibly political, we can’t get the Democrats to approve this merit-based, high-security plan, then we will get it approved immediately after the election, when we take back the House and keep the Senate, and of course, hold the presidency,” Trump said in closing his speech, opening his arms to a standing ovation.

Trump’s advisors say the new plan crafted by his son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, is meant to rally Republicans around a single message and to reflect the president’s values.


Although the speech included language attacking gangs as “some of the worst people anywhere in the world,” it lacked some of the more inflammatory and exclusionary language Trump has employed elsewhere.

Nearly four years ago, Trump opened his presidential campaign by branding many immigrants who cross the border as rapists and criminals. More recently, he warned of “invaders” in caravans and, while at the border in California last month, said the country was too full to accept asylum seekers.

Thursday, by contrast, Trump said, “We cherish the open door that we want to create for our country, but a big proportion of those immigrants must come in through merit and skill.”

Shortly after, however, Trump’s campaign sent out a fundraising message harshly criticizing Democrats.


“How many of our children have to die at the hands of illegal immigrants before Democrats decide to put our national security ahead of their political games?” it demanded.

Kushner, whose plan was not popular among immigration advocates on the left, nonetheless resisted calls from Trump’s more hard-line advisor, Stephen Miller, to lower the number of legal immigrants who would be allowed into the country.

“The president is a deal maker, and so I’m sure he understands that at this stage he’s putting out some areas he thinks are important, then he and those of us who support those ideas are going to have to go out and get some Democrats to sign on,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), an occasional Trump critic and onetime GOP presidential nominee, told reporters Thursday.

Yet even Republican allies have complained in recent days that the new plan falls short of addressing the systematic problems with the existing system.


Trump emphasized what he termed a “Build America” visa, a nod to his “America First” slogan. Yet the plan does not address the Dreamers, or the rest of the estimated 10.7 million people illegally in the United States.

Under the White House’s plan, the number of new, legal permanent residents each year would remain at roughly 1.1 million, but the priority given to certain categories would shift dramatically.

Today, roughly 60% of all green cards go to spouses and children of U.S. citizens and permanent residents and citizens’ parents and siblings.

Under Trump’s proposal, the number of green cards given to spouses and young children of citizens would remain about one-third of the total. The other categories, however, including parents and siblings, would be cut to zero.


Among those who might not have been allowed residency if Trump’s plan had been in effect in earlier years are First Lady Melania Trump’s parents. Slovenian immigrants, they became citizens last year.

The current system doles out about 12% of green cards to employees and investors, but under the new plan, that would jump to 57%.

Meanwhile, the number of refugees, asylum seekers and those from countries with historically low immigration rates to the U.S. who enter through a visa lottery would be cut by more than half, from about 22% of the total to 10%.

Any potential immigrant would also need to pass English proficiency and civics tests and prove he or she will be “financially self-sufficient,” to gain admittance, with preference being given to young people, who the president said would contribute more to the country’s social safety net.


“To promote integration, assimilation and national unity,” Trump said, “future immigrants will be required to learn English and to pass a civics exam prior to admission.”

The plan does not immediately tackle a recent surge in Central American families and unaccompanied children arriving at the border in near-record numbers. Administration officials said the plan would close what they call loopholes in asylum law that they argue are pulling migrants to the border, but neither the White House nor the president in his announcement offered specifics. Immigration authorities say the surge has brought the immigration system to the “breaking point.”

On Tuesday night, a 2-year-old Guatemalan boy apprehended at the border died in El Paso after weeks in the hospital, the fourth known child death after detention by U.S. authorities since December.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), emphasized the lack of Democrats who were consulted by Kushner, telling reporters that “we would always welcome” a briefing on the details. She said Democrats also want “comprehensive immigration reform,” and she criticized Kushner’s use of the term “merit” to describe preferences for people with job offers or educational degrees who would be favored under Trump’s proposed changes.


“It is really a condescending word,” she said. “Is family without merit? Certainly, we want to attract the best to our country, and that includes many people from many parts of society.”

Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.