Peace in the Middle East may not be the toughest assignment President Trump has given Jared Kushner after all. The president's son-in-law and senior adviser has been tasked with devising an immigration plan that can win bipartisan congressional majorities without alienating immigration hardliners who voted for Trump and want to see a border wall.
The rough contours of Kushner's plan appear to be taking shape, and it runs the real risk of pleasing precisely no one. The plan would reportedly enhance border security at a time when illegal crossings are once again on the rise, and strengthen employer verification, while shifting legal immigration away from being predominantly focused on family reunification to being more about new arrivals' marketable skills in the labor force. A White House official told Politico that the plan's main goal "is to make sure that we're not bringing in low-skilled labor."
That sounds a lot like the "merit-based" immigration system Trump and Stephen Miller, his top adviser on the issue, have been pushing for some time. But there's one catch: Rather than seeking cuts to the number of immigrants legally admitted annually, Kushner's proposal would keep the number roughly the same.
The Trump administration has already decided to make 30,000 additional visas available to temporary seasonal workers, an increase of about one-third above the existing cap. This move drew a rebuke from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of the White House's top congressional immigration allies, who said it would mean "more low-skilled workers" taking American jobs. But there are a few strategic reasons the Trump administration may be shying away from steep immigration cuts.
One is public opinion: While the nation's opinion on immigration levels has fluctuated in recent years, according to Gallup, backing for the present level has largely held steady: In January 2019, respondents were divided 37 percent for maintaining the status quo, 31 percent for less immigration, 30 percent for more.
Another reason is that the Trump administration had a chance to achieve some of its immigration goals last year, including the famous border wall, in exchange for codifying a popular but legally questionable deportation relief program for young undocumented immigrants former President Barack Obama controversially created via executive action. The deal faltered in part because Trump endorsed steeper immigration reductions than even many Republicans were willing to support.
At the time, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggested a counteroffer: "[T]he same rough blueprint but with more green cards for skilled immigrants, so that Miller gets his cuts to low-skilled immigration but the overall rate stays closer to the status quo." That, he added, might be "a bargain that actually reflects the shape of public opinion, not just the elite consensus."
Early descriptions of the Kushner plan suggest it could be that compromise. But its shortcomings cannot be overlooked.
First, Democrats are unlikely to accept any kind of deal ahead of the 2020 election, so Kushner's plan will likely serve mainly as a campaign document. It is a pretty weak rallying cry for immigration-centric Trump voters compared to what Miller and former chief strategist Stephen Bannon offered four years ago — and Kushner doesn't have much credibility with the president's hardline supporters, especially on immigration.
Second, there's no denying that there are valid reasons to pursue lower legal immigration numbers. Successfully integrating new immigrants depends on how many people are coming in, the length of time they are present, and the strength of the host country's assimilating institutions. Without even modest immigration reductions, America might be batting 0-3 on these requirements. It's also hard to be confident in how "merit-based" admissions will truly be if our government keeps letting in a million people a year. And if additional immigrants loosen the tight labor market, how much of the present economic boomlet will continue to benefit workers at the lower end?
Trump would no doubt like to live up to the line he added to the State of the Union address about permitting "people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally." But as he tries to repair his relations with the Republican donor class and present the "abolish ICE" Democrats as the real immigration radicals, he is unlikely to be soft in his immigration rhetoric during the height of the 2020 campaign. Talking tough on immigration while admitting large numbers of immigrants, as Kushner's plan would permit, is a bad look.