Trump Plan: Big, Bold and Wrong
Terry H. Schwadron
May 19, 2019
Donald Trump’s big, “bold” immigration plan landed late last week with a thud in Congress, with bipartisan jeers that it was dead on arrival and didn’t represent actual legislation in any case.
Indeed, the proposals was to immigration as the Trump-mocked Green New Deal is to environmentalists — an expression of direction as aspiration rather than a specific new encoding of law.
Having said that, it was interesting to watch the reaction to a proposal aimed largely at legal immigration that seeks to change the reasoning of admitting immigrants who speak English, who are skilled, who have job prospects in hand, who can pass a U.S. civics class — all things that might leave Trump himself out of the running. By all accounts, this proposal — worked out by son-in-law Jared Kushner over objections of immigration whisperer Stephen Miller — stands more as a political document for campaign 2020 than it does as new legal code.
But moving from relying on family ties to a “merit-based” system of admission was drawing lots of reasonable criticism, including from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, that it was totally unclear what passes as merit other than engineering degrees. Some, including Rep. Maxine Waters, D-CA, called it outright racist. The proposal does seem anti-American on its face for spurning any sense of an American Dream for immigrants rather than creaming the world’s tech elite. And it does seem to overlook the DACA population, who have proved on their feet that they qualify even under these rules.
After all, doesn’t this approach overturn how most of our parents or grandparents came here?
Of course, it took a special “Einstein Visa” (EB-1) reserved for immigrants with “extraordinary ability” and “sustained national and international acclaim” for Melania Trump to come to the United States in 2000 as a model, certainly a special skill in need in the United States.And her parents, who won their citizenship last year, did so on the basis of family ties, not because they have special skills or job offers. This is to say nothing of the irony of a immigration policy advocating skill over family ties being written by Jared Kushner, whose entire job exists because of relationship.
A New York Times editorial dwelled on what was missing from this version of comprehensive immigration: the fate of an estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally or on overstayed visas, and any positive disposition towards those in limbo under an Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Once again, the Trump approach involves waving a magic wand, a few magic words that fit onto a hat, and an emotional appeal to his base voters to keep out unwanted immigrants from south of the border. It is a pitch that is classist, that aims to keep America whiter and living in a bubble. Its lack of empathy not only dismisses asylum seekers, workers, families and people who need help, but is a poor forerunner for the era we are entering through climate disruption, in which vast populations will need to be resettled.
As such, the magic wand will not persuade Congress.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-SC, the formerly reasonable senator whose life has been re-made as a Trump spokesman, has introduced the opposite of the Trump bill. His is the legislative stick without wider direction that will end asylum at the border for keeping fearing Hondurans and Guatamalans in their own countries where they can apply and wait for review. Of course, if these people felt that they could wait safely in their own countries, they wouldn’t be seeking asylum in the first place, but Graham seems concerned more with removing any crisis at the American border than figuring out how to address the underlying issues.
Graham helpfully would add 500 immigration judges to get through the years-long backlog of asylum appeals. His approach is so practical and operational as to advance in the Republican-majority Senate at least.
Meanwhile, the war on immigrants continues, with the White House scraping the barrel for anything to make the idea of coming to the United States as horrible an experience as possible.
The ACLU reports that last week, a White House memo outlined ways to undermine asylum, including a direction to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to change how it conducts credible fear interviews, the threshold screening interview given to thousands of asylum seekers every year.
DHS is reportedly now planning to deploy Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers — enforcement agents whose mission is to “secure the border” — to conduct “credible fear” interviews with asylum seekers instead of using professional asylum officers from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). By replacing neutral asylum officers with law enforcement officers, this proposal is a blatant effort to rig the system against asylum seekers and drive down the number of people who pass their screening interviews.
So, Trump’s vision was being seen as an attempt to appeal beyond his conservative base, a potentially risky shift at a time when he is eyeing a tough reelection campaign in which he believes immigration will play a major role. In campaign rallies, Trump has continued to paint many immigrants as dangerous, and his effort last week to balance his tone exposed him to criticism from conservatives, while failing to insulate him from attacks among Democrats. Ann Coulter, for one, started tweeting immediately to suggest that Trump has lost his political way.
The Trump proposal also overturns the prohibition on holding child migrants in custody for no more than 20 days, deporting unaccompanied minors back to their home countries, having some asylum-seekers remain in their home countries while their requests are processed and building the wall. He suggested a new “border security trust fund” financed by fees and other revenue generated at border crossings.
It was welcome news that Trump wanted to present a what-we-believe-in program. But this one was wide of the plate.