President Donald Trump broached a rarely discussed but potentially significant policy issue in his address to Congress Tuesday by calling for reform in the legal immigration system.
While much of his own campaign rhetoric and the vast majority of debate on Capitol Hill have centered on illegal immigration, the president said legal immigrants are taking jobs and driving down wages for American citizens.
“Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others –- have a merit-based immigration system,” Trump said. “It is a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially. Yet, in America, we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon.”
He claimed immigrants are costing taxpayers billions of dollars per year, but the study he cited also found that second-generation immigrants have a positive fiscal impact in the long run.
Instead of the current system that heavily favors immigrants with familial connections in the U.S., he called for a shift to a more merit-based selection process.
Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., has proposed legislation in the past that would have similar effects on immigration priorities, which he said have not changed since the 1960s while those of other western countries have.
“We have the most liberal legal immigration system in the world,” he claimed in an interview Wednesday.
Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., was intrigued by the idea of a merit-based immigration system, but he hesitated to back such a policy without additional information.
“We’ve always been a nation that says we’ll accept you whoever you are…I want to hear more before I’m ready to sign up for that,” he said.
Prior to the speech, Trump floated his desire for a compromise on immigration reform during a lunch with TV news anchors. He suggested at the time that he was open to granting undocumented immigrants legal status.
In his address, he did not mention that possibility, which many Republicans and conservative activists have long dismissed as amnesty, but he said immigration policy should protect jobs and wages for Americans, strengthen national security, and “restore respect for our laws.”
“If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades,” Trump said.
Despite the failure of several attempts at bipartisan immigration reform in recent years, Republicans are optimistic that Trump can strike a deal.
“It’s very interesting that he brought up a desire for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Rep. French Hill, R-Ark. Because Trump’s approach prioritizes border security, he believes the president has “street cred” to win more support than others have before.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, agreed with Trump that legal immigration needs to be reassessed, but he said the primary focus of enforcement efforts should be on those who committed additional crimes once in the U.S.
“We have every right as a nation to protect our nation,” he said.
Lawmakers need to be realistic about the issue and deal with the millions of people now in the country illegally because they overstayed visas, said Rep. John Faso, R-N.Y. He stopped short of calling for a path to citizenship, but he said they should have to pay a fine and get in line behind immigrants who are following the rules.
“We need to deal with this in a smart way, which has compassion but also is clear-eyed about what our goals are,” he said.
Democrats agree with the abstract idea of bipartisan immigration reform, but they are far less confident that Trump can be a reliable partner in that effort.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said comprehensive reform is needed, but he slammed Trump for his executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim majority countries and his announcement of a Department of Homeland Security office devoted to immigrant crime.
“We need comprehensive immigration reform and if we were able to put it on the floor of the House, it would pass with bipartisan support,” he said. “We would be able to bring these people out of the shadows and avoid some of this disruption.”
Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., emphasized the importance of offering eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants, something Trump and many other Republicans do not support.
“Can we reach a compromise on immigration reform?” she said. “I think so—if, if it does contain some important elements, like a path to citizenship. It doesn’t mean it’s immediate, it may take years, but it’s got to go in that direction.”
Democrats like Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, would be open to some form of legal status rather than citizenship, but he observed that former President Barack Obama achieved a bipartisan compromise on the issue in the Senate only to see it crash and burn in the Republican-controlled House.
“I think [Trump’s] problem is going to be not with Democrats but Republicans,” Cuellar said.