U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday threw his support behind President Donald Trump’s immigration reform proposal, announced this week ahead of schedule.
In a speech on immigration and national security in Norfolk, Virginia, Sessions said a merit-based immigration system would be in the U.S. national interest.
“It is time to put in place smarter immigration laws and start enforcing them,” Sessions said to a group of law enforcement officials. “It is time to end the lawlessness and create a system that serves the national interest.”
A merit-based system, Sessions said, “would be great for our economy. … Much more importantly, it would be the best way to ensure that our immigration system does not continue to harm our national security. Immigration is a national security issue.”
In his speech, Sessions focused on alleged links between immigration, terrorism and crime. He blamed lax migration laws for allowing terrorists into the country.
“Employers don’t roll dice when deciding who they want to hire,” he said. “Our incredible military doesn’t draw straws when deciding whom to accept. But for some reason, when we’re picking new Americans — the future of this country — our government uses a randomized lottery system and chain migration.”
“Chain migration” is a term used by some to describe a system where immigrants can sponsor family members who can later sponsor other family members to join them in the United States.
In addition to eliminating family-sponsored migration, the plan would establish a $25 billion “trust fund” for a wall along the Mexican border, providing funding for the president’s core campaign promise. That money would also be for other ports of entry and exit and enhancements to the northern border with Canada.
The proposal also calls for ending the visa lottery system for certain countries.
In Washington on Friday, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen released a statement that also supported the president’s immigration plan. She said her department “fully supports the president’s security-focused immigration framework, including funding for the border wall system, the ability to quickly remove those who break our immigration laws, and reforms to our immigration system.
“This is what DHS front-line personnel have asked for to secure our borders and maintain the integrity of our immigration system,” she said.
The White House on Thursday released the details of its Framework on Immigration Reform and Border Security, four days earlier than had been scheduled. It characterized the plan as a framework for compromise.
For the 1.8 million young immigrants living in the United States known as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the country by their families when they were still minors, there would be a long path to citizenship and with conditions.
For those recipients who have been allowed to stay in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, as well as others who met the same criteria, there would be a “10- to 12-year path to citizenship with requirements for work, education and good moral character.”
On Friday, as the day before, opponents of the plan spoke out.
At Sessions’ speech in Norfolk, dozens of protesters gathered outside the library hosting the closed-door speech. Many held signs indicating their opposition to the plan: “Immigrants and refugees welcome” and “Deport racists, not dreamers.”
The group chanted: “Lies, hate and fear. One stinking year,” presumably referring to the one year that President Trump has been in office.
A statement from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Friday read, “The administration’s anti-immigrant framework is an act of staggering cowardice which attempts to hold the Dreamers hostage to a hateful anti-immigrant scheme.”
The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin, has been closely involved with the immigration talks. His statement said, “The White House claims to be compromising because the president now agrees with the overwhelming majority of Americans that Dreamers should have a pathway to citizenship. But his plan would put the administration’s entire hard-line immigration agenda — including massive cuts to legal immigration — on the backs of these young people.”
Trump’s plan drew praise from some Republican lawmakers, although no promises to follow it to the letter.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a statement Thursday evening saying, “I am hopeful that as discussions continue in the Senate on the subject of immigration, members on both sides of the aisle will look to this framework for guidance as they work towards an agreement.”
Some Republican hard-liners were displeased that the plan offered a concession to young immigrants.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz said, “I do not believe we should be granting a path to citizenship to anybody here illegally. … Doing so is inconsistent with the promises we made to the men and women who elected us.”
David Milliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee said that, based on current trends, the U.S. is “on track to cut by three-quarters the number of refugees allowed into the country for resettlement,” in fiscal 2018, what he called “an unprecedented assault on U.S. global leadership in this area.”
“It is no exaggeration that the future of America as a home for refugees is now on the line,” Milliband said. “The administration’s determination to squeeze the life out of the refugee resettlement program will harm the lives, and life chances, of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, and it sets a terrible moral example to the rest of the world.”
The IRC resettlement assessment also found that only 13 percent of refugee arrivals in fiscal 2018 identify as Muslim, compared with 48 percent in fiscal 2017.
Pushing for vote
The White House is hoping the Senate will be able to vote on the plan early next month, before the Feb. 8 deadline for lawmakers to approve a spending bill to keep the U.S. government operating.
Many opposition Democratic Party lawmakers, as well as some from the president’s Republican Party, are opposed to voting for a long-term budget bill without a deal on immigration.
If there’s no legislation to deal with the DACA recipients by March 5, administration officials warned Thursday that they will be considered illegal immigrants and those who come into contact with immigration officers will be processed for deportation.
Steve Herman at the White House contributed to this article.