Trump Proposes Merit-Based Immigration Overhaul

Trump says proposal is 'pro-American, pro-immigrant, and pro-worker'

Trump announces a new immigration proposal / Getty Images
May 16, 2019

President Donald Trump announced his administration's new proposal to reform the U.S. immigration system Thursday, calling for a radical rebalancing of permanent immigration towards a skills-based system.

The plan, which according to the New York Times will serve as a central part of Trump's re-election message in 2020, retreads common themes from earlier in his term: move to a merit-based immigration system by scrapping "diversity" visas and reducing the number of available family migration visas.

"Our proposal builds upon our nation's rich history of immigration, while strengthening the bonds of citizenship that bind us together as a national family," Trump said in a Rose Garden speech debuting details of the proposal.

The plan as outlined looks to rebalance the U.S. immigration system. Under the status quo, which has existed with only some modification since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, four competing principles govern the allocation of green cards. Visas are awarded based on if a recipient will contribute to the goals of unifying families, bringing valuable skills to the workforce, adding to country-of-origin diversity, or benefiting from humanitarian assistance as a refugee.

The largest number of visas in the current system come from unifying family, under what are called "family preference" visas. These cover "immediate" family members—spouses, parents, and minor children of U.S. citizens—as well as so-called "preference immigrants" including adult children and siblings of citizens the spouses and children of long-term permanent residents. Recipients account for roughly two-thirds of all permanent immigration.

If implemented, the White House proposal would shift from this paradigm, allocating 57 percent of visas to individuals with useful job market skills or concrete offers of employment. Thirty-three percent of visas would go to families, with the remaining 10 percent going to humanitarian cases. The diversity visa lottery would be scrapped.

This new mix of visas would be accomplished in part with the implementation of a "points-based" system, of the sort implemented in Canada and Australia. The system would award points on the basis of age, English proficiency, employment offers, and educational attainment. Those who earned enough points would be eligible for a new "Build America Visa," as Trump has opted to name it.

The plan would also impose requirements that new arrivals to prove that they can speak English and pass a civics exam. Critically, however, it would not reduce the total number of immigrants to the United States, more than one million of whom arrive each year.

"Priority will also be given to higher wage workers, ensuring we never undercut American labor. To protect benefits from American citizens, immigrants must be financially self-sufficient. Finally, to promote integration, assimilation and national unity, future immigrants will be required to learn English and to pass a civics exam prior to admission," Trump explained Thursday.

Officials told reporters Wednesday that the president also has a plan to address the asylum crisis at the southwestern border. But during his speech Thursday, Trump offered few details, saying only that the bill would reunite unaccompanied children in their home countries while combating "frivolous" asylum claims. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) did release a bill Wednesday designed to reduce asylum abuse and hopefully stem the tide of arrivals.

The Trump plan is in large part the work of presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who has worked on and off to forge consensus among Congressional Republicans on the immigration issue. Kushner presented the plan to Senate Republicans Tuesday, Fox News reports, to positive if uncertain response.

Senate immigration hawks responded with guarded optimism to the general tone of Trump’s push for immigration.

Sen. David Perdue (R., Ga.), co-author of the RAISE Act, a proposal to introduce a merit-based system, praised Trump for being "serious about finding solutions to fix our broken immigration system and secure our borders," but stopped short of endorsing the bill.

"I will continue working with the Trump Administration and my Senate colleagues to move toward a merit-based immigration system that is focused on bringing in the best and brightest from around the world who wish to come to the United States legally to work and make a better life for themselves," Perdue said.