By Attorney Eric R. Welsh
On May 16, President Trump introduced a “points-based” immigration plan that he will push Congress to pass into law. Trump’s plan would entirely cut most family-based immigrant categories, virtually eliminating a citizen or immigrant’s ability to bring certain family members to the United States. Instead, Trump’s immigration system would favor young, high-educated, English speaking immigrants at the exclusion of families and refugees.
Much remains unknown about the specifics of Trump’s proposal, although it seems clear that his plan would eliminate every family-based immigrant visa category other than immediate relatives (spouses and young children of U.S. citizens). Trump framed our current family-based system as a “random lottery” where any low-skilled or unskilled alien can immigrate to the U.S. if they have a relative here, “and it doesn’t really matter who that relative is.” Trump frequently references the danger of “chain migration,” propagating a myth that immigrants can easily (and quickly) pull every person they are related to into the U.S. like links on a chain.
The reality is very different. Our current system allows American citizens and permanent residents to file petitions for foreign relatives that may one day form the basis for a visa application, but only close relationships are recognized for classification purposes (spouse, parent-child, and sibling), with restrictions even within those relationships. For example, a green card holder cannot file a petition for a parent or for a married child, and no one (citizen or resident) can file a petition for a grandparent, aunt or uncle, cousin, niece or nephew, or any other relationship further removed. Even once a relationship is recognized by filing a petition, the backlog for available visas often results in wait times of years or decades before that relative can apply for a visa, depending on the country of origin and the type of relationship.
Trump claims that his plan would not reduce the overall number of available visas, but would instead shift the available visas away from families and towards high-skilled workers who are able to prove their merit and pass rigorous tests. Trump suggested that an applicant could be awarded points based on age (the younger the better), skills, job offers, advanced education, higher wage demands, and job creation plans. His plan would also require proof of fluency in English, and would force applicants to pass a civics test to prove they will be properly “assimilated.”
Trump pledged that his plan would make America more competitive, though it is difficult to follow his logic. He claims that his merit-based points system will attract the “best and brightest” who will be more likely to build businesses here than in another country. Trump ignores the fact that our current laws provide visa pathways for high-skilled workers and investors, and somehow imagines that these high-value foreign workers will more likely immigrate after our laws are changed to restrict family members from immigrating. That simply makes no sense.
Everyone has family, and it is unrealistic and unfair to expect a high-skilled foreign worker to permanently settle in a country that slams the door shut on her family. It’s not surprising that many high-tech and other high-skilled workers are choosing jobs in Canada, where the immigration policies are more permissive.
In truth, Trump’s plan would make it harder for anyone to immigrate to the U.S., including the high-skilled, educated young workers that he claims to covet. Trump did not address DACA at all, and it appears that his plan would not provide any substantive protection for the 3.6 million “Dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. at a young age and grew up here. Without specifics (or any lip service to due process), Trump also attacked asylum seekers, and said that his plan will “screen out” meritless asylum claims and swiftly deport any person making one. He also talked about the need to overhaul the laws for deporting criminals (something that our current laws already mandate), and for removing “incentives” for family migration—likely by punishing or refusing to help migrant families who cross the southern border. In all, Trump’s plan is an attack against legal immigration in all forms.
It is important to remember that Trump’s proposal is far from law. The White House has yet to issue any specific language that could be used in a bill, and even once a bill is drafted, it will face explosive opposition from both parties for a variety of reasons, and may never garner the votes needed to pass. Nonetheless, the proposal is a reminder that parts of our current system, including all family-based petition categories, may not last forever. Any person who is able to file a petition for a foreign relative should consider doing so, and should consult with an experienced immigration attorney regarding any concerns.