Donald Trump and Jared Kushner’s Empty Promise of Immigration Reform
Earlier this year, President Trump tasked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with devising a proposal for sweeping immigration reform. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security began holding a series of briefings to educate Kushner on current policies, and a small staff was detailed from the federal bureaucracy to advise him on specifics. One person with knowledge of the meetings told me that Kushner “didn’t seem to know anything” about the legal and political challenges of comprehensive immigration reform, which has eluded Presidents for close to three decades. The prevailing wisdom on Capitol Hill has been that reform is only possible in pieces—for instance, aggressive border security (a priority for Republicans) could be paired with a legalization program for Dreamers (a priority for Democrats). Yet, during the past two years, even incrementalist dealmaking has failed, as the President has walked away from one bipartisan agreement after another. Kushner, who once told reporters that he didn’t come to Washington to work on immigration policy, agreed to take a break from his work on the Middle East peace process to fill the void at home.
This past week, when Kushner met with Senate Republicans to unveil the broad strokes of his proposal, an Administration official told the Washington Post that the purpose of the presentation was to generate a “political document” that congressional Republicans could “rally behind.” At the meeting, however, Kushner struggled to answer even the most basic questions—about the fate of the Dreamers, for example—and confused a number of senators with vague, sometimes contradictory language. The thrust of the plan, in theory, was to revamp the country’s legal-immigration system by redistributing annual visas to immigrants based on their employment skills rather than on their family ties. But, at one point, Kushner vowed that the reform would help “unify families.” Moderate Republicans were put off by the plan’s haziness, and influential members of the restrictionist wing of the Party felt that Kushner hadn’t gone far enough to retool legal immigration. (The plan, which no one actually saw, was said to include additional funds for a border wall, along with measures to restrict asylum and increase family detention.) An Administration official who had worked on Trump’s Presidential campaign told me that Kushner was a “lefty squish from New York.”
On Thursday, despite the failure of Kushner’s proposal to gain traction with members of the President’s own party, Trump announced that it was the basis of his new immigration policy. Those expecting the White House to offer specifics of an actual plan were either disappointed or relieved: by the end of the day, no further information was released beyond what the President described in broad generalities in a speech delivered in the Rose Garden. At times, it sounded as though substantive proposals were not yet drafted, and the President made reference to portions that were still being conceived and written. According to Trump, the aim of the over-all plan was both to “stop illegal immigration and fully secure the border” and to overhaul the legal-immigration system to “attract the best and brightest from all around the world.”
A million people receive visas in the U.S. each year; twelve per cent of them currently qualify based on their skills (such as language proficiency and level of education), and more than half do so because of existing family relationships. (A spouse or parent, say, already has legal status.) The White House wants to flip the distribution, without lowering the over-all number of visas granted annually. The policy debate over how the U.S. confers legal status on immigrants—whether the country should stick to its family-based model or move to something more “merit-based”—is fraught. The visa system, which has failed to keep pace with changes in the U.S. and global economy, hasn’t been meaningfully changed since 1990. The reason for that is mostly political, and the Trump Administration has done nothing in the past two years to inspire confidence that it might have an answer.
Meanwhile, the asylum crisis at the southern border, which both parties recognize as urgent, has nothing to do with a merit-based legal-immigration system. The President’s speech on Thursday had a familiar structure, in which the first, and more passionate, half consisted of his usual litany about MS-13, immigrant crime, and “open borders.” By the time Trump got to the legal-immigration component, at the end, he looked bored.
A few hours before the President’s speech at the White House, I asked a former Republican aide with years of experience on immigration issues in Congress what the political rationale could be for introducing a plan that only seemed to reveal the current disarray of the Republican caucus. “One hundred per cent hubris,” the former aide said, adding that Kushner and Trump “think that the rest of us are idiots, that we don’t understand the art of the deal.” In 2007, in a previous comprehensive immigration-reform effort, Republicans advanced a proposal to modify the legal-immigration system by introducing a points system for determining who was eligible to receive visas. “It didn’t work because it was too fucking complicated!” the aide told me. Trump had already failed multiple times in the past two years to negotiate much more limited immigration proposals. “They were close to a deal on a lot of this stuff”—a DACA fix, for one—“and the President walked away because Stephen Miller convinced him he could do better.” When I asked the aide if Republican congressmen might even resent the President’s latest gambit, the aide replied, “I think to really annoy them, they would have had to take this whole Kushner proposal seriously.”
In the Senate, the Democrats have just reintroduced an immigration proposal of their own, which was tailored more narrowly to the current crisis at the border. It had four broad components: increasing aid to Central America; creating additional ways for asylum seekers to seek relief without having to make the dangerous overland trip to the border; addressing the backlog of asylum cases in immigration courts; and toughening penalties for child smugglers on both sides of the border. The proposals are commonsensical and technocratic, and the first two would, in some fashion, reinstate policies that the Trump Administration has tried to end.
Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told journalists at the Capitol about a conversation he’d recently had with the President, who had apparently called him to ask what they could agree to do on immigration. “I said, ‘Mr. President, look at comprehensive immigration reform,’ and I sent him the bill,” Schumer said, in reference to legislation from 2013 that passed the Senate but died in the House, where the Republican Speaker, John Boehner, refused to bring it to a floor vote. The 2013 bill addressed everything from border security and legalization of undocumented immigrants to changes in the legal-immigration system. It also proposed a shift toward a merit-based system and the elimination of certain categories of family-based migration. These changes were palatable to Democrats because other measures were included as inducements. Kushner’s proposal, by comparison, was both less coherent and much less ambitious.
One thing Thursday’s announcement made clear was how difficult, if not impossible, it has become to get back to the terms of the 2013 bill and the hard-fought consensus it represented. Sitting in the front row on the White House lawn as Trump gave his address was Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who helped write the comprehensive immigration-reform bill in 2013. He was also an architect of a bipartisan plan crafted in February, 2018, to protect Dreamers from deportation after the President had cancelled DACA the previous year. (Trump rejected that deal on the spot when Graham brought it to the White House.) On Thursday, Trump called out to Graham from the dais to thank him for his support. Now one of Trump’s most ardent defenders, Graham is working on a bill to change the asylum process at the border. He hasn’t finished drafting the actual bill, but this week, on the floor of the Senate, he proposed a system in which Central Americans are not allowed to seek asylum at the U.S. border at all. It’s an obvious breach of national and international law—in other words, exactly what the President wants. “We need something very quickly, and if you can get it done, that would be fantastic,” Trump said. Graham flashed him the thumbs-up.