Trump green card comments angered some Republicans but could appeal to business

His remarks were in sharp contrast with his previous anti-immigration rhetoric

June 26, 2024, 10:36 AM

Former President Donald Trump -- who has made harsh opposition to immigration a defining message of the GOP -- last week pitched what would be one of the most significant expansions of U.S. immigration in decades.

Speaking on a podcast hosted by tech businessmen, Trump announced his support for giving a green card to every noncitizen graduate of a U.S. college ("staple a green card to every diploma," said the former president).

Hours later, following outrage from some anti-immigration Republicans, he issued a clarification. A statement from a spokesperson given on Friday to ABC News said that the proposed program would involve an "aggressive vetting process," and that "this would only apply to the most thoroughly vetted college graduates who would never undercut American wages or workers."

Whether or not they become a major part of his messaging, Trump's recent comments offer a glimpse of what appeared to be in contrast to how he talks about immigration on the campaign trail -- for example, calling for the mass deportation of migrants in the country illegally.ahead of a hotly-contested presidential election where it will be a top issue -- and a high-stakes first debate this Thursday.

ABC News spoke to conservative experts and immigration policy insiders to discuss how a potential shift in tone on immigration could play with voters.

Donald Trump speaks with with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott during a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border at Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, Feb 29, 2024.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

"It runs against type, in many ways," said Whit Ayres, a long-time Republican political strategist. "In some senses, it's a 'Nixon goes to China' kind of phenomenon, where the guy who has been the most critical of immigration offers an opportunity for immigrants who are most likely to create jobs and grow our economy to stay in America."

For key independent voters, Ayres believes, more vocal support for high-skill immigration could offer a needed complement to the fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric that Trump has long made his calling card.

"It could make swing voters and suburban voters take another look at the way he's approaching the immigration issue," Ayres said, "and make it seem more rational than emotional."

Daniel Di Martino, an economist who studies immigration and a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, also noted that the stance appeals to business leaders looking to hire high-skilled immigrants.

"The audience here is corporations and businesses -- not voters, necessarily," said Di Martino.

President Donald Trump answers a question as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the second and final presidential debate at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Morry Gash/Getty Images

Trump announced the position on green cards during an appearance on a podcast hosted by several businessmen from the tech industry, which relies disproportionately on high-skilled worker visas. In recent weeks, Trump has made overtures to Silicon Valley, looking to draw support from a group that has tended to side with Democrats.

As several interviews with conservative immigration advocates and policymakers made clear, though, Trump's position isn't without its critics.

"My first-rip reaction was roll-backward shock," said one senior official who served in the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration. "This is so outrageously unthought-through it's amazing."

If all foreign students were to receive a green card on graduation, the official objected, "you're not buying an education -- you're buying citizenship."

"It's a terrible idea," concurred Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies and an avowed immigration restrictionist. "But it doesn't surprise me coming from President Trump, because he's never been a restrictionist."

"He subscribes to the standard Republican mantra, 'illegal good, legal bad,'" Krikorian added.

Another former Trump immigration official -- former acting director of ICE Tom Homan -- was more approving.

"If we're going to immigrate, let's immigrate some highly-skilled workers," Homan said, noting that he believes Trump's comments on the podcast referred back to proposals from early in his administration.

PHOTO: Thomas Homan testifies during the House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing titled "The Biden Administration's Regulatory and Policymaking Efforts to Undermine U.S. Immigration Law," in Rayburn Building, January 17, 2024.
Thomas Homan, retired director, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testifies during the House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing titled "The Biden Administration's Regulatory and Policymaking Efforts to Undermine U.S. Immigration Law," in Rayburn Building, January 17, 2024.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

In 2017, the former president issued an executive order commissioning a review of the H1-B high-skill visa program and backed legislation that would have substantially reduced the number of green cards granted each year, saying that it would "prioritize immigrants based on the skills they bring to our Nation."

Before his election as president, in 2015, Trump tweeted language similar to his comments on the podcast last week, writing that "When foreigners attend our great colleges & want to stay in the U.S., they should not be thrown out of our country." But weeks before the 2020 election, the Trump administration would go on to modestly restrict the H1-B program.

Despite opposition from some conservatives, experts interviewed by ABC News agreed that Trump did not risk losing support from opponents of immigration among his base.

"What are those people going to do? Vote for Joe Biden?" asked Ayres. "They're not going to vote for Donald Trump, because he wants to have high-skilled immigrants in the country? Really?"

President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Oval Office of the White House surrounded by small business leaders January 30, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Andrew Harrer/Getty Images

"He has got so much credibility on these issues, he can actually take a position that seems slightly at variance with what he said in the past on immigration and get away with it," Ayres added.

"Nobody's going to stop voting for him because of what he said," echoed Di Martino. "If anything, that can only earn him more votes."