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Protesters chant during a rally against Trump’s immigration order at San Diego International Airport on March 6, 2017. (SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters chant during a rally against Trump’s immigration order at San Diego International Airport on March 6, 2017. (SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump’s immigration ambitions extend beyond the wall Add to ...

In a speech before U.S. lawmakers last week, President Donald Trump identified Canada’s system for admitting immigrants as worthy of emulation. But the changes his administration has in mind aren’t ones Canadians would recognize.

Mr. Trump’s ambitions to reshape the U.S. immigration system go well beyond building a wall and accelerating deportations. He also wants to overhaul legal immigration to the United States in a way that would reduce the number of legal immigrants entering the country, a move the President and his aides have portrayed as necessary to protect American workers.

As a candidate, Mr. Trump endorsed this approach, talking about the need to keep immigration levels to “within historical norms” in order to “ensure assimilation, integration and upward mobility.”

Last week, he said he favoured a switch away from the “current system of lower-skilled immigration” to a “merit-based” method.

Canada evaluates many potential immigrants based on their skills and education but also accommodates a much higher level of immigration compared to its population than the United States does.

The approach of Mr. Trump and his inner circle represents a departure from mainstream Republican views, said Linda Chavez, a conservative commentator and immigration expert. Mr. Trump “wants a smaller pool of people coming and he wants to change the composition of those coming,” she said.

The last Republican president, George W. Bush, tried and failed to forge a grand bargain on immigration reform that would have included a path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants and a guest-worker program to address the need for lower-skilled labourers.

By contrast, Mr. Trump and his aides are more aligned with a targeted piece of legislation introduced last month by two Republican senators called the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act.

The bill would reduce annual legal immigration from about one million currently to 540,000 within a decade by capping refugee admissions, abolishing a visa lottery, and, most importantly, by restricting the types of family members eligible to join their relatives in the United States. Mr. Trump “strongly supports the broad concept,” Senator Tom Cotton, one of the sponsors of the legislation, recently told the Washington Post.

Since the 1960s, Americans and permanent residents have been able to apply to bring in their immediate family members, including parents and siblings. The RAISE Act would limit that privilege to spouses and minor children only. The existing approach to family reunification amounts to “chain migration,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, an advocacy organization that seeks to reduce immigration. “They just come in in this gigantic blob and kind of go anywhere in the labour market.”

The proposed legislation would face strong opposition from Democrats and some Republicans.

For immigration advocates, the rhetoric of the President and his aides is alarming. “The administration would like to end immigration to the United States as we know it,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. One of the unique aspects of U.S. immigration policy is that it has combined family-based and work-based immigration, an acknowledgment that immigrants contribute both to the economy and their communities, Mr. Noorani said.

Jeremy Robbins, executive director of New American Economy, a group that has pushed for broad immigration reform, added that the discussion of a “merit-based” system means different things to different audiences. Mr. Trump’s vision, for instance, appears to rest on the “untrue assumption that low-skilled immigration is somehow not a good thing for the American economy,” Mr. Robbins said, when it is crucial for industries such as agriculture, construction and tourism.

Critics of the administration say they are disturbed by repeated references to “historical” norms. Two of Mr. Trump’s close advisers – senior aide Stephen Miller and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions – have referred in positive terms to a former era of U.S. immigration policy, starting in 1924. In response to an earlier wave of immigration, the United States instituted a quota system based on national origin to limit new arrivals. The restrictions favoured immigrants from Northern Europe while shutting out Asians, Africans and many European Jews.

Those restrictions were abolished in 1965, opening the door to a new wave of immigration from Asia, Latin America, Africa and Mexico. The percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign-born is now 14 per cent, according to the Pew Research Center, which is near the historic record for the country.

On a satellite radio show broadcast last year, Mr. Miller and Stephen Bannon, now the President’s chief strategist, expressed distress with the level of legal immigration. “Isn’t the beating heart of this problem right now, the real beating heart of it, of what we have got to get sorted here, is not illegal immigration?” Mr. Bannon asked, according to a recording provided by the Washington Post. “As horrific as that is, and it’s horrific, don’t we have a problem, we’ve looked the other way on this legal immigration that’s kind of overwhelmed the country?”

Mr. Miller concurred. “Immigration is supposed to be interrupted with periods of assimilation and integration,” he added. “We should follow America’s history, and the history of America is that an immigration-on period is followed by an immigration-off period.”

Ms. Chavez, the conservative commentator, noted that Mr. Bannon has also expressed discomfort with the number of technology executives in the United States who are originally from South Asia. “I wish that [the Trump administration] were talking about [instituting] a Canadian system, but I don’t think they are,” she said. “What they mean is they want people from Europe with college degrees.”

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