Donald Trump is, once again, trying to use the bully pulpit to get Congress to take up immigration.
His Thursday afternoon speech in the Rose Garden is being spun by his advisers as an opportunity for Trump to set the record straight about what he really believes about immigration — and to launch a push for Congress to pass a plan for “merit-based” legal immigration.
In reality, it’s accomplishing half of one of those things.
The first idea — that this is a way for Trump to unveil a new immigration agenda — is absurd. “A lot of what people say is not reflective of what he says to his team and to us. What we have put together is the president’s immigration policy,” one White House official told Politico — as though Trump himself hasn’t been talking about immigration incessantly and elevated it as an administration priority since he took office.
The second idea is less wrong. This is a renewal of Trump’s effort to overhaul legal immigration by cutting family-based immigration and focusing instead on the “merit-based” immigrants Trump does hypothetically want to allow to settle in the US. An administration official said Tuesday that this was a “proposal we can unite Republicans around” before discussing more contentious parts of the issue.
The positive-sounding “consensus” message about “merit-based immigration,” though, is running ahead of any actual legislative text for Trump to endorse. Indeed, even without seeing a proposal in writing, immigration restrictionists are already upset that Trump might back a bill that doesn’t cut overall immigration levels.
A consensus message risks leaving a lot of other things out, too.
Obviously, it omits the realities of Trump’s widespread executive-branch crackdown on legal and unauthorized immigration.
And it skirts any discussion of legalizing unauthorized immigrants currently in the US — including immigrants facing the loss of their deportation protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Perhaps most bafflingly, though, it requires Trump to pivot away from the idea that the US/Mexico border is in crisis and that Congress needs to spend all of its energy addressing the unprecedented number of families coming to the US without papers.
It’s difficult to build consensus while maintaining urgency. Trump’s effort to put forward a more positive message is also a way to pile more demands on a Congress that’s proven uninterested in meeting even more modest White House requests on immigration.
Trump’s latest “merit-based” proposal doesn’t actually exist yet
The administration is characterizing Trump’s speech as a launch of an immigration plan. But for a plan to become a law, it has to be written up as a bill first. And there’s no bill yet. Nor is it clear when there will be one.
First son-in-law Jared Kushner has reportedly been working on a policy proposal that Thursday’s speech is expected to preview and promote. It’s not clear when, or whether, Kushner’s proposal will turn into a bill. It’s also not clear how detailed Kushner’s proposal actually is; several Republican senators left Tuesday’s meeting complaining that Kushner had been unable to answer basic questions about his bill, and that senior policy adviser (and immigration hardliner-in-chief) Stephen Miller had stepped in on multiple occasions to answer the questions instead.
Some elements of a Trump “plan” for merit-based immigration have been disclosed to press before Trump’s speech:
- The plan would cut most categories of family-based immigration into the US — which is currently the main way that immigrants are allowed to get permanent residency (green cards) and, ultimately, US citizenship.
- Green cards would be allocated via a points system that would favor immigrants with high levels of education, English-language fluency, and professional skill.
- There would be some sort of test of “patriotic assimilation” — to quote the Washington Post, “One administration official offered an example in which green-card applicants would be required to pass an exam based on a reading of George Washington’s farewell address or Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.” (It’s not clear whether this test would be a way to score points under the point system or whether green-card applicants would have to pass it to qualify in addition to accumulating enough points.)
- The overall number of immigrants allowed to come to the US would not be reduced.
- There would also be some form of border security provisions, including funds to screen every pedestrian and vehicle entering the US (presumably at official border crossings).
Without an actual bill, though, it’s impossible to know whether Trump is insisting on all of these planks or just gently suggesting Congress consider them.
Even these few details are already generating some discomfort among immigration restrictionists — who feel it’s fundamentally important that legal immigration be not just overhauled, but reduced — and fervent opposition among Democrats, who don’t seem inclined to discuss immigration reform if legalization is off the table.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is generally much less interested in taking up immigration bills than President Trump would like him to be. In the past, immigration debates have been squeezed into a few days, and bills have been dispatched quickly. It’s not clear why another crack at “merit-based” immigration would change that pattern.
Trump keeps giving speeches that run ahead of the immigration proposals they’re supposed to unveil
If you’re getting deja vu, you are not alone.
Donald Trump has been talking about immigration incessantly for the last four years. It is his signature issue. While he usually talks about immigration enforcement instead of changing legal immigration, he’s certainly spent plenty of time railing against “chain migration” and the diversity “visa lottery” — which are two things that any “merit-based immigration” proposal could be counted on to do.
But Trump has a history of giving immigration speeches that are supposed to unveil some sort of policy and then don’t. In the run-up to the midterm election in November, the administration promised a major immigration address from the Roosevelt Room — but the speech announced no new policies and was mostly an expansion of previous Trump riffs on caravans and the border.
In January, the administration asked the networks to air an address in primetime — which was originally expected to showcase Trump’s proposal to end the partial government shutdown he had caused in December. Instead, Trump gave a short and fiery speech about how immigrants are coming across the border to kill you.
Trump doesn’t have a terrific track record of discussing policy in detailed terms, or even accurate ones. The White House keeps acting as though Trump’s speeches will launch policy initiatives, because Trump speeches get attention, but that’s rarely how it ends up working in practice.
Trump is piling additional demands onto his requests for Congress to address the border crisis
When Trump does make immigration demands of Congress, furthermore, he has a lot of trouble choosing a few demands and sticking to them.
The last time Congress itself showed any appetite for passing an immigration bill — when Trump attempted to end the DACA program in fall 2017 — Trump kept moving the goalposts and then blaming Congress for not meeting them. The White House went out of its way to attack DACA bills that didn’t do enough in their minds to reduce “chain migration”; Trump’s preferred bill, which overhauled legal immigration and spent $25 billion on a border wall, was the least popular proposal the Senate considered.
Something similar happened during the shutdown debate: A fight that was originally about how much money to appropriate for a physical “wall” along the US-Mexico border briefly blossomed into a proposal to legalize DACA recipients (and provide permanent legal status to immigrants with Temporary Protected Status, who are also facing the loss of their protections thanks to Trump’s executive actions), while overhauling asylum law and restricting the president’s ability to protect groups of immigrants in future.
A few weeks ago, the administration submitted an “emergency” request for additional funding for agencies dealing with immigrants — with the warning that as tens of thousands of families a month keep entering the US without papers, the administration will run out of money before the end of the fiscal year on September 30 unless Congress authorized the extra money.
The Trump administration firmly believes that more money won’t help unless Congress changes the law to make it harder for people to seek asylum in the US, and easier to detain and deport those who do seek asylum. So it’s repeatedly asked Congress to override the Flores settlement that limits the time families can spend in immigration detention, and to allow unaccompanied children and teenagers from Central American countries to be deported without trial. It’s also voiced support for broader restrictions on asylum, like the ones Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is unveiling in a bill this week that would prevent Central Americans from seeking asylum in the US and force them to apply from within their home countries instead.
But changing the legal immigration system to a “merit-based” one doesn’t affect any of that. Even the border provisions being floated as part of Kushner’s plan — like increasing screening — would have no impact on the current flow of asylum-seekers.
This speech is not Donald Trump’s immigration policy
Republicans tend to bristle at the allegation that Donald Trump is anti-immigration. They insist either that he likes legal immigration, just not unauthorized immigration — which isn’t actually true, as Trump has railed against “chain migration” and the “visa lottery” with nearly as much bile as he’s railed against unauthorized migration.
Or they insist that he wants to make it easier for immigrants who will contribute to American society to come to the US and harder for immigrants who won’t contribute. Thursday’s speech might at least provide some evidence of the latter.
But what Donald Trump ideally wants out of the immigration system in his heart of hearts is not Donald Trump’s immigration policy.
Immigration policy isn’t just about what bills Congress passes. It’s about what the executive branch does with its considerable leeway to direct enforcement of immigration law; set regulations for legal immigration, and levels for some visas and refugee admissions; and direct immigration judges on how to interpret statute.
Running the executive branch means making decisions (or appointing others to make decisions) about all of that. It’s impossible to be president without implementing an immigration policy through the executive branch. And the Trump administration has been unprecedentedly aggressive in using all of these means to restrict legal immigration and crack down on unauthorized migration.
As president, Donald Trump has slashed refugee admissions to the United States. Depending on the outcomes of court cases, he may be responsible for stripping deportation protections from over a million immigrants. He’s radically expanded the use of immigration detention and forced thousands (and counting) of asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico — with further asylum crackdowns potentially ahead. He has done so much more.
It is vanishingly unlikely that Donald Trump has finally, this time, figured out how to get Congress to take up a broad immigration overhaul by giving a speech. And anything short of a bill that passes and is enacted will matter less for immigration policy than everything Trump is already doing.