WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Thursday (May 16) proposed overhauling the US immigration system to favour young, educated, English-speaking applicants instead of people with family ties to Americans, a plan that faces an uphill battle in Congress but gives Trump an issue for his 2020 re-election campaign.
Trump's plan, roundly panned by Democrats and immigration advocacy groups, was aimed at trying to unite Republicans - some who want to boost immigration, others who want to restrict it - ahead of next year's presidential and congressional elections.
"If for some reason, possibly political, we can't get the Democrats to approve this merit-based, high-security plan, then we will get it approved immediately after the election when we take back the House (of Representatives), keep the Senate, and, of course, hold the presidency," Trump said to applause in a Rose Garden address to Republican lawmakers and Cabinet members.
Currently, about two-thirds of the 1.1 million people allowed to emigrate to the United States each year are given green cards granting permanent residency because of family ties.
Trump proposed keeping the overall numbers steady, but shift to a "merit-based" system similar to one used in Canada - a plan he said would result in 57 per cent of green cards to be based on employment and skills.
Ahead of the speech, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said "merit" was a "condescending" term.
"Are they saying family is without merit? Are they saying most of the people who have ever come to the United States in the history of our country, are without merit, because they don’t have an engineering degree?" Pelosi told reporters.
The plan also drew concerns from hard-line groups that want to restrict immigration. "The fact that it does not even call for a modest reduction in total immigration, but instead offsets decreases with increases in 'skills-based' immigration, is very concerning," said Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies.
UNLIKELY TO CLEAR CONGRESS
Trump ran for office in 2016 pledging to build a wall on the southern US border with Mexico to keep migrants out, and has fought Congress to get funding to pay for it.
Trump's plan included proposals to beef up security at the border to try to prevent people from crossing illegally and legal changes aimed at curbing a flood of Central American migrants seeking asylum.
But it left aside the thorny issue of how to deal with the roughly 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally - many for years - and protections for "Dreamers" brought to the country illegally as children, a top priority for Democratic lawmakers.
"To say it’s dead on arrival would be generous," said Pili Tobar, deputy director of America's Voice, a group that advocates for undocumented immigrants.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer criticised the White House for failing to consult with Democratic lawmakers, and said that showed the proposal was not serious.
Democratic support would be needed to advance any legislation through the Republican-led Senate - let alone the Democratic-controlled House - making it unlikely that Trump's plan will move forward ahead of November 2020 elections.
The plan also does not include changes sought by business lobby groups to help farmers and other seasonal employers obtain more guest workers, or reforms for technology visa programmes.
Republicans say they will try to move a package of measures through Congress to address a surge of mostly Central American families turning themselves in at the southern border.
Because of limits on how long children can be detained, many migrants are released into the United States with a date to appear in immigration court.
Border facilities - like the overcrowded station at McAllen, Texas, where migrants sleep on the floor, sometime for days, before being processed and released - have been overwhelmed.
A Guatemalan toddler who had been held in US Border Patrol custody and then released died in a hospital on Tuesday, adding to the tally of children who have fallen ill or died on the border because of the harsh conditions of the journey and in detention.