The truth about immigration policy is often not as exciting as the fight

 President Donald Trump, flanked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R- Ark., left, and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump, flanked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R- Ark., left, and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The minute I heard President Trump’s new immigration proposal included a provision that would prioritize people who spoke English, I knew exactly how it was going to go:

White House: “We have a new proposal that will make certain changes to the immigration process, using a point system that will include, as a favorable factor, the ability to speak English”

Pundits: “President Trump tells rest of world to speak English, dammit, or you get no cheesesteak!”

Essentially, that is what happened. Pundits being who they are (including me), they try and distill a complicated message into the most digestible sound bites for an already biased audience. So the Latina woman on CNN last night was railing about how racist it is to tell non-English speakers that they aren’t “worthy” of admission. And the white guy who said he had some Irish ancestors somewhere tries to explain why speaking English is a good thing, and why can’t we all just come together.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

And Trump supporters fist pump because we are “making ‘Murrica great again” by making it even harder than it already is to come into the country.

And Trump haters are disgusted because the White House (with a few senators) had the gall to point out that merit-based immigration policies are not only not racist, they are employed by virtually 99 percent of countries worldwide.

I am a pundit. But before that, I am an immigration lawyer who has put 23 years of her life into dealing with this stuff. I call it “stuff” because, after two decades, I can’t pretend to have any more of an understanding of what goes into the minds of legislators who make this sausage than the average Joe or Jill who read about the immigration crisis in the news. I know how it’s supposed to work, and I know the right words to use, and I can usually find the answer to a question somebody throws in my direction.

And I’ve saved a few hundred people from being deported, and I’ve probably gotten green cards and citizenship for about the same number, and I’ve also wept over the ones I couldn’t help. But it’s still “stuff,” and it’s still difficult to explain to the lay person who wants to see everything through a partisan prism.

So let’s get back to what President Trump is proposing, and this time, let’s try to actually analyze the admittedly skeletal suggestions.

First, we are talking about legal immigration, which is a nice change, because the last time anyone showed any interest in my field, they were talking about building walls, rounding up mothers, and sniffing out gang members.

The fact is that our legal immigration system is broken, and we need to figure out a way to fix it, which is something that we’ve been saying since Ronald Reagan was president. Over a decade ago, President Bush backed a plan that included provisions similar to the ones being advanced by Trump, including that merit-based point system.

The plan, floated by Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, would award points based on a variety of factors, including education, background, resume, age, and language skills. It would allow spouses, and children under the age of 21 to immigrate along with the principal immigrant (something we already do) but would eliminate the categories that award visas to adult children (those over 21), siblings, and other family categories.

As someone who knows that there are very long backlogs in the adult child and sibling categories, I don’t think this is really going to have much of an impact. For example, if a citizen files for his brother today, he can expect to get his green card in about 13 years. If he happens to be from Mexico, that waiting period is 20 years, and if he happens to be from the Phillipines, 23 years. That means that if I had filed a visa application for a Filipino client the first year I started practicing immigration law, he’d be able to immigrate in a couple of months.

This is just an example of how eliminating those categories isn’t going to make much of a dent in the number of people who are coming over, which undermines both the president’s claim that he’s cutting out the fat, as well as critics’ comments that he’s destroying the fabric of the family.

On the other hand, the proposal slashes the number of refugees who would get green cards, and this does damage to our fundamental nature as a safe haven for the persecuted. It would also deprive us of the initiative and ingenuity of those haven seekers, because the spirit that fuels their flight from persecution is the same spark that fuels their initiative. Today’s refugee is tomorrow’s tech executive.

The plan would also eliminate the Diversity Visa program, which only grants about 50,000 visas per year. Low-hanging fruit, but it’s good (or bad) for the optics, depending upon your position under the fruit tree.

I’m not the kind of “‘Murrica first” purist who thinks that being born here makes you a better person. But I’m also not going to fall in line with those who reflexively attack any proposal that cuts back numbers as bigoted and mean-spirited.

The pundit in me expects her colleagues to go for the jugular. It’s great click bait.

But the immigration lawyer just wants a solution that strengthens our economy, our culture, our traditions, and our borders.

It makes for bad copy, but a great country.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal