Trump launches new immigration overhaul push

Trump says immigrants must come in through merit and skill

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is laying out a new immigration plan to convince the public and lawmakers that the U.S. legal migration system needs to be overhauled.

Trump, speaking Thursday in the Rose Garden, says his plan aims to create a "fair, modern and lawful system of immigration for the United States." He says: "It's about time."

The latest effort, spearheaded by Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, focuses on beefing up border security and rethinking the nation's green card system so that it would favor people with high-level skills, degrees and job offers instead of relatives of those already in the country.

The plan is not yet embraced by his own party — let alone Democrats — and faces an uphill battle in Congress.

Trump says the immigration plan he’s proposing would prioritize “totally brilliant” immigrants.

Trump on Thursday laid out a merit-based plan that would give preferential treatment to high-skilled workers. He says right now the U.S. immigration laws "discriminate against genius" and "discriminate against brilliance" because most of the green cards are given to low-skilled people who would make low wages.

Under the plan, the country would award the same number of green cards as it now does. But far more would go to exceptional students, professionals and people with high-level and vocational degrees. Factors such as age, English language ability and employment offers would also be considered.

Far fewer green cards would be given to people with relatives already in the U.S. Fifty-seven percent would be awarded on merit as opposed to the current 12%.

Trump says that if Democrats won't adopt his merit-based immigration plan, he'll get it passed after the election.

Trump on Thursday unveiled his proposal in a Rose Garden news conference with little hard-line rhetoric. He says he wants to recruit the "most brilliant" people to live in the U.S. through a system that rewards talent and brains.

Trump is seeking to put a softer facade on the signature issue from his first campaign as he eyes a 2020 reelection. He said Thursday it was time to "restore national unity."

He suggested the plan could get passed after the 2020 election if necessary because the House could flip back to the GOP.

In briefings Wednesday that attracted dozens of journalists, administration officials said the plan would create a points-based visa system, similar to those used by Canada and other countries.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to outline the plan before Trump's announcement, said the U.S. would award the same number of green cards as it now does. But far more would go to exceptional students so they can remain in the country after graduation, professionals and people with high-level and vocational degrees. Factors such as age, English language ability and employment offers would also be taken into account.

Far fewer green cards would be given to people with relatives already in the U.S. and 57% versus the current 12% would be awarded based on merit. The diversity visa lottery, which offers green cards to citizens of countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S., would be eliminated. Officials insisted diversity would be addressed in other ways.

The officials offered fewer specifics on border security, which is expected to remain a key focus for Trump as he campaigns for reelection. Trump has been furiously railing against the spike in Central American migrant families trying to enter the country, and he forced a government shutdown in a failed effort to fulfill his 2016 promise to build a southern border wall.

As part of the plan, officials want to shore up ports of entry to ensure all vehicles and people are screened and to create a self-sustaining fund, paid for with increased fees, to modernize ports of entry.

The plan also calls for building border wall in targeted locations and continues to push for an overhaul to the U.S. asylum system, with the goal of processing fewer applications and removing people who don't qualify faster.

While the officials insisted their effort was not a "political" plan, they nonetheless framed it as one they hoped Republicans would unite behind, making clear to voters what the party is "for."

"I don't think it's designed to get Democratic support as much as it is to unify the Republican Party around border security, a negotiating position," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of the White House.

Indeed, the plan drew immediate criticism from Democrats as well as immigration activists, who remain deeply skeptical of Trump after past negotiation failures.

Democrats and some Republicans tried crafting a compromise with Trump last year that would have helped young Dreamer immigrants and added money for border security. But those talks collapsed over White House demands to curb legal immigration and a dramatic Senate showdown in which lawmakers rejected three rival proposals that aligned with the "four pillars" immigration plan Trump unveiled that year.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized the White House for failing to engage in talks with Democrats over the latest proposal.

"Don't come up with a plan that Stephen Miller rubber stamps and say, 'Now, pass it.' It's not going to happen," Schumer, D-N.Y., said, referring to Trump's hard-line policy adviser.

Lisa Koop, director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, also criticized the various planks of the proposal, including its failure to address those brought to the U.S. illegally as children who are currently protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, which Trump has tried to end.

"A plan that forces families apart, limits access to asylum and other humanitarian relief, and doesn't contemplate a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and other undocumented community members is clearly a political stunt intended to posture rather than problem-solve," she said.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration rates, applauded a "very positive effort" on legal immigration, but said it was "undermined by the embrace of the current very high level of immigration."

Republicans on the Hill, too, voiced skepticism, even as administration officials insisted the plan had been embraced by those who briefed on it. A PowerPoint presentation shared with reporters Wednesday referred to the plan as "The Republican Proposal," even though many GOP members had yet to see it.

Graham, who rolled out his own proposal Wednesday to address the recent flood of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, said he had advised Trump to try to cut a new deal with Democrats and believed Trump was open to that.

“I am urging the president to lead us to a solution,” he said.

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