Pelosi condemns merit-based immigration reform as Trump unveils proposal

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy calls Trump proposal “a very good start."

May 16, 2019, 1:47 PM

As President Donald Trump prepared to unveil his roadmap for immigration reform Thursday in the Rose Garden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the White House's focus on a "merit" system while stressing that any approach must be comprehensive, and include a path to citizenship.

“We have to do it in a way that secures our border, has a path to citizenship, respects the value of family to us that has certain principles that we would agree to,” Pelosi told ABC Senior Congressional Correspondent Mary Bruce at a news conference in the Capitol Thursday.

The "Trump Immigration Plan," as described by officials Wednesday, would prioritize visas for applicants with extraordinary talent, professional and specialized vocations, and exceptional students. Legal immigration numbers would remain the same with 1.1 million green cards, according to the official, who said the administration studied merit-based systems in countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Singapore.

“I want to just say something about the word that they use ‘merit.’ It is really a condescending word,” Pelosi said. “Are they saying family is without merit? Are they saying most of the people who have ever come to the United States in the history of our country are without merit because they don’t have an engineering degree? Certainly we want to attract the best to our country and that includes many people from many parts of society.”

Pelosi added that Democrats have not yet received a briefing on the proposal, but said the administration has asked to send someone to the Capitol to brief members.

“We would always welcome that. And we’ll see what they have to say.”

Pelosi said she would “always welcome” a briefing from the administration, but trashed reports that the plan will emphasize a “merit-based system.”

President Donald Trump awaits the arrival of Swiss Federal President Ueli Maurer at the White House, May 16, 2019.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

Her sentiments were echoed by Senate Democrats, who slammed the Trump proposal earlier Thursday.

“This sham proposal is dead on arrival. It is a mockery of what America needs,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said.

“It is despicable demagoguery to appeal to Donald Trump's base and prepare for the 2020 election. It is a political document, not a realistic reform proposal,” he added.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a lead negotiator on immigration in the Senate, told reporters that the president’s plan will be received with “skepticism” among his colleagues.

“The president needs to roll up his sleeves and face the reality of immigration, rather than make speeches to his loyal supporters,” Durbin said.

Durbin also called out White House senior adviser Stephen Miller for being one of the chief architects behind the Trump proposal.

“If Stephen Miller is guiding this from a White House point of view, we're going nowhere. Period,” Durbin said. “I hate to be so determinative in my statement but I've seen him, I've worked with him, his view on immigration is inconsistent with solving the problems we face.”

Pelosi also pledged to hold a vote in the House in the coming months to pass H.R. 6, the PROMISE Act, which couples the DREAM Act with a bill to renew support aliens with temporary protected status, which the administration has worked to end.

“So we’ll see what values are reflected there,” she added. “We’ve only heard titles like, ‘merit,’ which is non-merit. It means merit in eyes of Donald Trump.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks during a weekly news conference, May 16, 2019, on Capitol Hill.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy credited Trump for continuing to work toward a solution, calling it “a very good start,” but ripped Democrats for refusing to strike a deal.

“I think what the President's putting forward is not the complete immigration bill, but it’s a very good start and it’s the base where people can work from,” McCarthy, R-Calif., said. “It's not just a speech. The President is the individual - the only one I know that continues to offer ideas on solving immigration.”

Senate Republicans also praised Trump for taking the lead on immigration, but acknowledged the plan can't make its way through Congress without Democratic buy-in.

“Personally, I was glad to see the proposal. I think it's obviously just a start…I think it's a clear statement about what our immigration policy should be,” GOP Sen. John Cornyn told reporters on Thursday.

But Cornyn admitted he wasn't sure how they'd get Democrats on board.

“If you know the answer to that, then I owe you $5 bucks,” Cornyn said.

A group of migrants get into a U.S. Border Patrol van, near Sunland Park, N.M., March 20, 2019.
Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images, FILE

Sen. John Kennedy, R- La., told reporters: “I like what I see” but admitted he didn’t know enough about the proposal.

“We ought to spend a little bit of our time thinking about the next generation instead of the next election,” Kennedy said.

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham – who unveiled his own immigration proposal on Wednesday -- said Trump’s plan is a “good step.”

“I think it will unite Republicans and that's a good step,” Graham said. “We all realize you have to deal with the 11 million to get Democrats on board, but having a unified front on merit based immigration will keep the economy humming and border security is a good place to start.”

Graham is referring to the estimated 11 million undocumented migrants living inside the US.

“I really appreciate what the president is doing today, but it starts a negotiation, I hope,” he added.

McCarthy blamed Pelosi for refusing to cut a deal to solve the country’s immigration woes when lawmakers negotiated at length over the president’s demand for a border wall earlier this year.

“As I sat in the Situation Room in the White House during the shutdown, we had many discussions about this. The answer we always got from the Speaker of the House was, ‘I can't talk about that until the government’s open,’” McCarthy recalled. “The moment that she had the opportunity to solve the problem…she declined the opportunity to solve it.”

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