Trump immigration plan includes civics tests for legal entrants, border security boost

The president is set to unveil his proposal during a speech Thursday. It faces an uphill battle in Congress.
Image: U.S. President Trump visits U.S.-Mexico border in Calexico, California
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters while visiting the U.S.-Mexico border with Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, local sheriffs and U.S. Border Patrol agents in Calexico, California on April 5, 2019.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

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By Hallie Jackson, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Adam Edelman

President Donald Trump will roll out a two-pronged immigration proposal on Thursday that would make sweeping changes to the legal immigration system — including requiring a civics test — and enhance border security, senior administration officials said Wednesday.

The plan, which Trump is expected to announce during an afternoon speech, avoids some of the most hot-button immigration issues of the day — including a growing backlog of asylum-seekers and the status of so-called Dreamers — and is almost certainly doomed on Capitol Hill.

The proposal would put new requirements on immigrants seeking to enter the U.S. In addition to mandated checks like a health screening and background check, immigrants would be required to pass a civics test. They would then receive points based on age, English proficiency, offer of employment and education levels.

The proficiency requirements will likely see blowback. Senior administration officials are already defending it, arguing that language capacity is linked to better outcomes for immigrants and their children.

"They don't need to be Shakespeare," one official said, but they should have the ability to navigate the law.

On border security, Trump will call for scanning improvements at ports of entry, wall completion in 33 "designated and prioritized areas," the creation of a fee-based "sustainable fund" to continue to modernize border infrastructure, and modifications to streamline the process for those seeking asylum in the U.S., including expedited adjudication of asylum hearings and "prompt removal of illegal border crossers," the officials said.

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It's "not a wall from sea to shining sea," a senior administration official said.

The meat of the proposal, however, relates to the creation of a merit-based immigration system — from a family-based immigration system. The number of immigrants entering the country would neither increase nor decrease, but the composition would change.

Currently, based on White House estimates, about 12 percent of people obtaining green cards and citizenship do so based on "employment and skill," while 66 percent enter based on family connections and 22 percent enter for humanitarian reasons and through the diversity lottery. Under the White House plan, those numbers would change to 57 percent for employment and skill, 33 percent for family connections and 10 percent for everything else.

The merit-based system proposal is centered around what would be called the "Build America" visa. It recognizes three categories: extraordinary talent; professional and specialized vocations; and exceptional students.

The plan, crafted by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, White House adviser Stephen Miller and economic adviser Kevin Hassett.

The White House says the goal of the proposal is to make the rules more easily navigable. Now, they say, "there is a clear way to become an American citizen."

The proposal, however, is all but certain to be dead on arrival in Congress. It doesn't touch DACA or the status of Dreamers, making it a nonstarter with Democrats. It also doesn't address the 11 million people in the country illegally.

Officials said the plan is only intended to address legal immigration at the moment, setting aside strategies to deal with illegal immigration.

But despite the many potential pitfalls of moving forward with this plan — and no specific timeline for movement on what appears to be mostly a political document — the White House is casting themselves as confident.

"I don't think I've ever seen the president so positive" about a policy proposal, one senior administration official said. Another added that “people from every corner of the caucus seemed to embrace this.”

Many Republicans who were briefed on the plan Tuesday on Capitol Hill thought of the proposal not as meaningful legislation but as an attempt to rally Republicans.

But at least one Republican — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — has already denounced the proposal, telling NBC News that DACA recipients "cannot be excluded from any immigration package.”

And earlier Wednesday, another prominent Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, introduced his own four-pronged immigration bill that he said was “designed to stop the humanitarian crisis” at the United States-Mexico border.

Kristen Welker, Peter Alexander, Kasie Hunt and Stacey Klein contributed.