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President Donald Trump will unveil a sweeping new proposal Thursday designed to move the United States from a family based immigration system to what senior administration officials describe as an employment- and skill-based system.
The proposal includes two parts – a physical infrastructure component that would include border wall construction and be financed by new fees on trade collected at the border, and a revamped points system for those applying for U.S. citizenship.
Briefing reporters in the Roosevelt Room ahead of the president's announcement Thursday, senior administration officials described a system for new arrivals that they said would be more fair and clear and also would significantly shift the population receiving American citizenship toward a much more highly educated, higher-income group.
"We want to change the composition of who is coming through," a senior administration official said.
The plan is designed to give Republicans a positive proposal they can pitch on the campaign trail and in negotiations with Democrats, although Trump officials acknowledge that it is not likely to become law as is. Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, pitched the plan to Republican senators behind closed doors Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
"What we're doing is completing step one, which is having a proposal," a senior administration official said. "We'll see how everyone reacts and then we'll see what step two and step three look like."
The senior administration official quoted the Cheshire Cat from "Alice in Wonderland" to describe the purpose of the president's new plan: "If you don't know where you're going, it doesn't matter what path you take."
The officials said they have aggressive economic goals for the plan, predicting that it would increase annual GDP by 0.17 percentage point over 10 years, add $500 billion in new tax revenue, and reduce spending on social safety net programs by about $100 billion.
It would do that largely by moving away from the current family based immigration system – under which a large factor in being considered for citizenship is whether the applicant has family already in the country – to an economic system that would take into account the applicant's education, employability and even ability to create jobs in the United States.
The plan is silent on the question of what to do about undocumented migrants who are already inside the United States, or the employers who hire them to fill out lower-level agricultural, manufacturing and service work forces.
It also does not address the so-called Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children. Democratic lawmakers have made securing a pathway to citizenship for them one of their top legislative priorities.
The president's point-based citizenship application process would involve a U.S. civics test for all applicants.
"Similar to AP U.S. history with high school and college students – you'd read some of the core documents, take an online class that many colleges offer for free and sit for a civics exam," the official said.
In addition to basic health and criminal record checks, applicants would be awarded points for various factors, including age, English proficiency, an offer of employment or an investment and job creation pledge, and educational and vocational certifications.
The officials said the goal should be to admit immigrants who have the best chance of success in the United States. Younger immigrants tend to adapt better over time, they said, as do those who can speak English.
"They don't have to be Shakespeare, but they need to be able to navigate the law," an official said.
Beyond that, the system envisions three "high skilled" categories, including those of extraordinary talent. "Right now, there's not really a good way for someone like Nelson Mandela to come into the country," an official said.
Also included in the high-skilled category are professional and specialized vocations that are in demand inside the United States as well as "exceptional students" who would be able to apply to stay in the county midway through their educational career with the backing of their educational institutions.
Ultimately, the officials said the president's plan is to attract a changed mix of immigrants and to benefit American workers. "We would like upward pressure on wages, that's good for Americans who are already here," an official said. "We think this is incredibly pro immigrant."
Officials said the physical infrastructure portion of the plan would include new security at points of entry, inspection of all goods and people coming into the country, and completion of border wall in "designated and prioritized areas."
This would be financed by a new self-sustaining fund to continuously upgrade border and point of entry facilities. It would be financed, an official said, by "fees on existing trade on the border which haven't been changed in some time – we'd put them at market rate."
Vice President Mike Pence briefed Republican senators on the proposal over lunch on Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he is open to comprehensive immigration legislation but has refrained from weighing in on specifics.
However, the White House has spent little – if any – time courting Democrats on its latest proposal, and several of the measures are likely to face stiff opposition in the Democratic-controlled House.