Parsing the President’s Immigration Plan

On May 16, 2019, President Trump announced the outlines of the administration’s plan to overhaul our immigration laws.

There’s no question that the nation’s current immigration laws are in great need of thoughtful reform.  Unfortunately, the President’s plan would remake our immigration system in a way that betrays our nation’s immigration tradition and values, and also undermines our economy.

While details of the plan have yet to be released, the broad outlines of the plan closely mirror the RAISE Act, which the administration strongly endorsed when it was introduced in 2017.  As we described here, the RAISE Act attracted significant criticism that it would harm the U.S. economy, which needs not only PhD researchers and engineers, but also those willing and able to work at farms, factories, in the service sector, and everything in between.

The President’s most recent plan would create a new “merit” based system, favoring those who are already well-educated and financially well-off, and requiring that all immigrants already have English fluency.   It would slash our current immediate family immigration system, preventing permanent residents from petitioning for their spouses and children as current law allows, and no longer allowing U.S. citizens to be joined by their parents or their adult or married children.

The flaws in this proposal are legion, including its assumption that those who immigrate as immediate family  (the only kind of family member that current law allows)  don’t have “merit.”  Immediate family immigrants range from manual laborers to highly educated and experienced individuals and entrepreneurs, contributing at every level of our economy.  In addition, how many highly educated professionals will want to immigrate to the U.S. if they have to leave their adult children permanently behind, and will never be able to bring their parents?  (If the detailed plan mimics the RAISE Act, only the spouses and under-18 year old children of new  “merit” based immigrants could also immigrate.)

Moreover, the plan’s requirement  that immigrants already know English before immigrating goes against our country’s immigrant tradition and our values.   We have centuries of evidence showing that lack of English does not correlate to an inability to work hard and contribute to our communities and workforce.  (Had English fluency been a requirement for our forbears, many of us would not be here today.)  While many immigrants do have command of English before they immigrate, we have never made that a litmus test of suitability.

President Trump’s plan also excludes any path to permanent residency for the more than 1 million immigrants with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) who have only federal court injunctions standing between them and the loss of permission to stay and work in the U.S.  These individuals are long term members of our communities (for example, Hondurans have had TPS for more than 20 years now).  They participate in our workforce at rates higher than the native born, and are the parents of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizen children.   No serious immigration reform proposal can fail to include them, both from a humanitarian perspective, but also from an economic one.    These are working age individuals and our country needs every last one of them to stem our workforce shrinkage.

The President’s plan appears to be more of a political strategy than a good faith plan to improve our nation’s legal immigration system.  His willingness to negotiate with Congress will show whether the plan was offered in good faith or not.