Originally published by Politico
It’s no surprise that Democrats have panned the White House’s immigration framework. But now Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with President Donald Trump’s proposal to deeply cut legal immigration in exchange for protecting nearly 2 million Dreamers.
The bare-bones framework released late last week, which Trump promoted during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, would fundamentally reshape the nation’s immigration system by no longer allowing U.S. citizens to sponsor parents, adult children and siblings for green cards — amounting to the biggest proposed reduction in legal immigration in decades, experts say.
That idea, at least in concept, isn’t sitting well with many Republicans.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the overall plan from Trump is “credible” but that he would not support such significant cuts to the legal immigration side.
“The idea of cutting legal immigration in half and skewing the green cards to one area of the economy, I think, is bad for the economy,” Graham said, referring to the administration’s broad pitch to shift to a merit-based immigration system. “Not a whole lot of support for that. I want more legal immigration, not less.”
On the administration’s proposal to restrict legal immigration, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said: “We can agree to disagree to begin with, but we still get to write it.”
“Honestly, I think we need legal immigration,” Rounds added. “In the United States today, our population would not be stable if it was not for legal immigration. I’m in favor of having legal immigration. I want to eliminate the illegal immigration.”
Yet clamping down on family-based migration is a consistent and fundamental pillar of Trump’s immigration demands, and it’s unclear how much he is willing to compromise on cutting off so-called chain migration in his quest for a Dreamer deal. The mixed reaction to Trump’s plan only underscores the divisions within the GOP and the difficulties in reaching a bipartisan agreement on immigration.
Trump’s allies in Congress, including GOP Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have stressed restrictions on family-based migration are a priority. For conservative hard-liners in the House, the administration’s plan is actually too generous in offering a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Still other Republicans say tackling such legal immigration cuts is far too complicated a challenge to solve when 690,000 young immigrants without legal status are in danger of losing temporary deportation protections under an Obama-era directive.
The Trump administration has long spoken favorably of shifting the nation’s immigration system to one largely based on merit. And some Republicans say they’re fine with restricting migration based on the luck of family ties as long as those green cards get rerouted to immigrants with highly coveted skills.
But it’s unclear when the debate about those changes — which would come in a Phase 2 of immigration reform — would materialize on Capitol Hill. The framework doesn’t go into detail on any merit-based changes, and Trump himself endorsed legislation from Cotton and Perdue last summer that would slash legal immigration levels by 40 percent in just one year.
Lawmakers have generally tried to overhaul the immigration system in one big package, despite multiple failed efforts to do so — believing Congress needs to tackle all the thorny issues simultaneously.
“We’ve got to have a discussion about our workforce in the future, and in that discussion, we ought to also have the discussion about where those visas go,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said. “If you’re going bigger, and this has the effect of cutting the legal workforce by a third or by a half, that is not good for the economy and not good for our entitlement programs or anything else we want to fund in the future.”
One estimate, released Monday by the libertarian Cato Institute, which supports more open immigration laws, found that legal-immigration numbers could plunge about 44 percent under the White House proposal. That, according to the think tank, could be the “largest policy-driven legal immigration cut since the 1920s.”
A bipartisan plan devised by six senators tried to satisfy Trump’s demands on “chain migration” by barring parents of Dreamers from being sponsored by their soon-to-be-legalized children. It also delays green card holders from being able to sponsor their adult children until they obtain citizenship. But the administration and its congressional allies immediately said that wasn’t enough.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, a key bellwether for Senate Republicans on immigration, said he was fine with new family-based restrictions as long as the administration processed green card applications that were already pending.
That amounts to a years-long backlog, and the administration has proposed doing so. But that, in turn, is drawing fire from immigration hawks because that amounts to at least 3.9 million foreigners waiting for visas, according to State Department figures, and even more applicants who are backlogged at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
In Alaska, GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she regularly hears from the sizable Filipino community about the immigration system and how it can take nearly two decades for them to sponsor relatives. They regularly urge her to push for more equity in the legal immigration system, she said.
“I need to look really carefully at it, because in my state, it’s the issue of legal immigration that is as compelling as anything,” Murkowski said of Trump’s framework. “So I’d like to try to figure out a way that we can work fairly with the legal immigration system.”
Combined with deep resistance from Democrats on upending the nation’s family-based immigration system, it appears unlikely Trump’s proposal can survive Capitol Hill intact. A smattering of senators who have been regularly meeting in the office of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) haven’t even gone into such specifics on legal immigration, senators say. Instead, they’ve focused on building support for a bare-bones base bill that could serve as a starting point for the expansive floor debate that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised.
Now, some senators, including Collins, say Congress would be better off brokering a narrower deal that allows Congress to pass legislation protecting Dreamers by the Trump-imposed March 5 deadline.
“My preference would be that we deal with the Dreamer population and border security at this point,” Collins said. “The other issues are extremely complex and I think require more time.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he would be “fine” with simply codifying the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program into law. But by going further than that and offering a path to citizenship to 1.8 million Dreamers under Trump’s plan, Portman noted: “The bigger you get, in this case, the harder it is. It would attract concern on both sides.”
Such a pared-down measure, however, is also almost certain to crash into resistance in the more conservative House — where many lawmakers say the White House proposal is too liberal.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who helped strike a significant border security deal during the 2013 immigration fight, said Trump’s overall plan was “pretty good.”
But, he added, “I understand the way it’s set up, there could be some cuts to legal immigration. I understand that’s problematic to many people.”