March 1, 2017

Immigration in the Age of Trump

Mark Disler

Congressional Republicans, as well as the general public, responded favorably to last night’s address by President Trump to a joint session of Congress, with 57% of respondents to a CNN survey saying they had a “very positive” reaction to it. Among the issues he addressed was immigration.

There was speculation in the news media prior to the speech that President Trump would signal an openness to a pathway to legal status for undocumented aliens who have not committed serious crimes. This was based on the President’s conversation in a private meeting with television news anchors. Such an openness is a departure from his campaign rhetoric wherein he claimed all undocumented aliens would have to be removed before any of them might be allowed to reenter the country in a lawful process.  It is also contrary to the tone and substance of his recent Executive Orders, and DHS implementing memoranda, which have expanded the categories of undocumented aliens for priority removal.

In any case, there was no such explicit signal in his speech. He did say that he believed “real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws.” It is difficult to read support for legalization of a group of undocumented aliens in this passage — other than perhaps the Dreamers who he has thus far refrained from acting against — given his negative view of the impact of low-skilled immigrants on American jobs and wages and his view that respect for our laws includes respect for our borders. The internal wrestling over the meaning of these private comments and public remarks among the different wings of his Administration should be interesting.  Moreover, a portion of his base, both in and out of Congress, will not give him a pass on such a stark departure regarding his signature issue. One can only imagine the interview between Fox News and Ann Coulter in such an event.

The President did call for legal immigration reform, reprising his campaign pledge to seek a switch from a system favoring lower-skilled immigrants to a merit-based system. He also said his Administration will enforce the requirement that immigrants be self-supporting. His focus on merit-based immigration and unfavorable view of lower-skilled immigrants, as a practical matter, is in derogation of family-oriented immigration, which is widely supported by immigrant communities, immigration groups, their advocates, and their allies in Congress who are principally Democrats. Moreover, such a program creates winners and losers in the business community since a number of industries utilize lower-skilled immigrant workers. This is a contentious mix.

The President has not yet issued an expected to Executive Order addressing H1-B, higher skilled visas. It was believed that he would impose tighter restrictions on their use. Might the President’s nod toward merit-based immigration provide room for a less restrictive posture toward these visas? Bear in mind that he has previously called for a turn away from lower-skilled immigration to merit-based immigration at the same time he has been critical of the H1-B program. Still, supporters of this visa program ought to seize upon these words to stress the importance of this particular merit-based program. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is making the case to the Administration for the value of the visa and the need to preserve its utility. The program, however, has powerful critics aligned with the President’s own criticism, such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and senior Democrat, Senator Dick Durbin (R-IL).

While reiterating his defense of immigration and border security actions he has taken, the tone of the speech was somewhat softer if only because his tone had been so much tougher until last night. As always, the devil is in the details. It remains to be seen if his private words and opaque suggestion that real reform is possible will lead to any realistic chance of either legal immigration reform or more solicitous treatment of any undocumented aliens, other than possibly the Dreamers, in this Congress. And given the extensive Congressional budget, health care, and tax agenda, any significant action of such a nature would likely have to wait until the second Session.


Mark Disler

Mark works extensively on issues before both Judiciary Committees and the Senate Finance Committee. Additionally, he has worked for a wide range of Prime Policy Group’s clients before a variety of other Committees and the Republican Congressional Leadership. Mark served as Chief Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as in the Department of Justice under President Reagan.