President Donald Trump speaks about his immigration proposal Thursday in the Rose Garden of the White House. The plan calls for a merit-based system that prioritizes high-skilled workers over those with family already in the country. It does not address young immigrants who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Photo: Alex Wong
Photo: Alex Wong

Trump touts ‘merit-based’ immigration plan modeled on Perdue effort

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., has been a vocal advocate for a similar “merit-based” system over the past two years and signaled his support for the new White House plan, but local immigration advocates have panned such an approach.

In a Rose Garden speech, Trump said the proposal is “just common sense.”

“It establishes a new legal immigration system that protects American wages, promotes American values and attracts the best and brightest from all around the world,” he said.

The brainchild of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and policy adviser, the proposal would create a points-based system not unlike those used in Canada and Australia. It would prioritize high-achieving professionals and students with English language skills while moving the country away from its current family-focused system.

The plan would also end a decades-old diversity visa lottery, create a fund to modernize ports of entry and push for the construction of a border wall and an overhaul of the country’s asylum system.

‘Right kind of people’

The proposal builds off legislation introduced by Perdue and U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and endorsed by Trump in 2017. That bill, dubbed the RAISE Act, also prioritized well-educated migrants and sought to limit the types of family members legal residents can bring to the U.S.

Unlike the White House’s newest proposal, it would have decreased legal immigration levels over a decade, a major priority of anti-immigration groups.

Despite that, Perdue indicated he’d sign on as a supporter of the new White House plan.

“I applaud the president for coming up with something he can be for, and I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Perdue told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This isn’t just about illegal immigrants, it’s about what do we do to keep America growing economically, protect our workers and yet bring the right kind of people in.”

The plan attracted no shortage of critics Thursday.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., took issue with the proposal’s shift to a “merit-based” system.

“Are they saying family is without merit?” she told reporters.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the plan “cruel and inhumane,” and he urged the White House to work with Democrats on a comprehensive immigration solution.

What about grit?

Trump’s plans drew mixed reactions in Georgia on Thursday.

Santiago Marquez, the president and CEO of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses in the state are struggling to find workers amid the strong economy. He wondered Thursday how the president’s emphasis on highly educated and skilled immigrants could help some Georgia companies find employees and hinder others. Marquez, who immigrated here from Cuba when he was a boy, pointed to traits that aren’t easy to measure, such as grit.

“This is one of the few places in the world where you can come with absolutely nothing and if you work hard enough and if you are smart enough, you can actually do quite well for yourself,” he said.

“That ingenuity, that drive,” he added, “I don’t ever want to kill that.”

Glory Kilanko, the director and CEO of Women Watch Afrika, a local immigrant support group, is skeptical about Trump’s focus on merit-based immigration.

“We have people who are immigrants who came to this country with doctorate degrees. Some are engineers. And even when they come here they are not accorded that status,” she said. “They are told they have to go back to school all over again to be able to get the American degree.”

The president’s plans, she added, would make it harder for people seeking protection from persecution in their native countries.

“I have a question to ask the president: How can a woman or a man who is fleeing for her or his life be told that you have to write an exam — it has to be merit-based before you can come in?” said Kilanko, who received asylum in America after fleeing her Nigerian homeland.

Tracie Klinke, a local immigration attorney and the former chairwoman of the Georgia-Alabama chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, noted the president did not address the plight of young immigrants — nicknamed “Dreamers” — who were brought here illegally by their parents.

“It’s a shame he didn’t use this opportunity to protect Dreamers — people who are already here, who are educated and often working,” she said. “They help out businesses and the economy already. Why ignore them when they are here already contributing?”

Klinke also spoke in favor of allowing families to help relatives immigrate to America, saying it helps “fuel innovation.”

“Family-based immigration,” she said, “has a positive impact on business development and community improvement by creating strong communities which foster an environment for the development of local businesses.”

Campaign fodder

Much like the RAISE Act, the new White House plan is unlikely to move on Capitol Hill.

Republicans are divided on how to tackle legal immigration, and Democrats are unlikely to sign off on any plan that doesn’t deal with Dreamers.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the issue was left out of the Kushner plan on purpose.

“Every single time we have put forward or anyone else has put forward any type of immigration plan and it’s included DACA, it’s failed,” she told reporters, referring to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama administration program that protected Dreamers from deportation.

With little runway on Capitol Hill, the proposal is instead being viewed as a messaging document that the president and GOP can rally around ahead of the 2020 elections.

Immigration is a signature issue for Trump and could become that for Perdue, both of whom are up for re-election in 2020.

Perdue didn’t focus on immigration during his run for the Senate in 2014, but he’s become a leading voice in the chamber on the issue over the past two years as he’s sought to push his White House ally to the right during past bipartisan negotiations.

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The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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