RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump says it'll be the envy of the modern world - his words - talking about U.S. immigration policy.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our proposal builds upon our nation's rich history of immigration while strengthening the bonds of citizenship that bind us together as a national family.
MARTIN: In the Rose Garden yesterday, President Trump revealed his goal to fundamentally shift the immigration system from one based on families to one based on skills. Democrats and Republicans are criticizing the plan. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it's dead on arrival. Joining us to explain the White House's proposal is Brooke Rollins. She is assistant to the president for strategic initiatives in the office of Jared Kushner, who's played a central role in coming up with this immigration plan over the last several months.
Thanks so much for being with us.
BROOKE ROLLINS: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be on.
MARTIN: So the focus of this plan is on legal immigration. President Trump didn't mention the estimated 11 million people living in the United States illegally, which has been a priority of his, at least rhetorically. What would become of them under this plan?
ROLLINS: Well, I think that we want to take a first step, right? I mean, the - it's clear that, based even on yesterday, Speaker Pelosi and what the Democrats have said about this plan, which - by the way, you know, however many years ago before this president, they probably potentially would have supported it. They've supported things like this in the past. But unfortunately, because of the environment in Washington, they are obviously - as you mentioned, said dead on arrival.
But the key thing here is, what do we need to do to fix the system moving forward? Clearly, something has to - discussions have to be had about the people that are here, per your point. But more importantly, or at least as importantly, is what's wrong with the current system. And what do we need to do to fix it? The last time a major overhaul on our legal immigration system was achieved was in the 1960s, about 50 years ago. So better matching what the rest of the country looks like, who we're bringing into the country - these are really important priorities. And we're glad the president's willing to take a leadership role.
MARTIN: Well, let's look at the core of the plan, which is to change the priorities for the immigration system, so getting - doing away with most family-based immigration - this is when one person comes, and then they're allowed to try to get other members of their family into the United States - and instead favoring something called a merit-based system. Let's first listen to a clip from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on this.
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NANCY PELOSI: It is really a condescending word. Are they saying family is without merit? Are they saying most of the people who've ever come to the United States in the history of our country are without merit because they don't have an engineering degree?
MARTIN: How do you respond to that?
ROLLINS: Well, the plan currently - so right now, under the current system, just for your listeners, only 12% of those coming to America legally - about 1.1 million a year - but only 12% of those are based on skill and merit. Compare that to other countries like Canada, which is 63%, New Zealand 57%, Japan 52%, Australia 68%. Clearly, we are very, very behind. And per the speaker's comment yesterday, we are shifting to more of a merit system.
But we're not doing away with the family system. It goes from 66% currently to 30 - I'm sorry - 33%. But what's most important is - right now - that we have to build an economy and build a country that really looks forward. And while, certainly, the shift away from the extended family system, which is what we have right now - it actually prioritizes the nuclear family - the spouses and the children - which, in many countries, they get put to the back of the line.
The other really important thing here, Rachel, is that you think about a child in Uganda or someone in Uruguay or think of any country around the world. Currently, under today's system, unless you have a relative already here, the chances of you ever getting to come to America are almost zero. What we want to do is fix that.
MARTIN: Well, then let's talk about the criteria that - by which someone like that could come to the United States. I mean, how do you define merit or highly skilled? I mean, according to the administration's own data, I mean, there are plenty of people - nearly half of family-sponsored immigrants already have college educations.
ROLLINS: Well - and that's exactly what we're trying to do, is really look at a new system. And, you know, the other thing that's interesting - our team that put this together went to the New Zealand website, went to the Australian website. And within a matter of minutes - maybe 30 minutes - absolutely 100% knew - didn't need immigration lawyers, didn't take months to figure out.
Right now in America, we have over a hundred visas - over a hundred. It's literally impossible to figure out, takes months and a lot of help to figure out if you can come. Under this new system, it would be very similar to New Zealand or Australia, where you yourself, without an immigration lawyer and an expert, can get online and figure out what you need to do to get here. And that's really important - things like offer of employment, education and vocational certification, et cetera.
MARTIN: Right. I mean, no one disagrees that the current system is very complicated and needs to be fixed. I do need to ask you, though. There's a huge backlog of green card cases. What are going to - what's going to happen under this plan to the millions of people who've been stuck in that backlog? Are they going to lose their place in line because there would be an entirely new system of criteria?
ROLLINS: Well, it just depends on exactly - some of those people would move to the front of the line. And we hear so much about, you know, the doctor in some country or the nuclear physicist in another country all who want to get here. But they're on a 20, 30-year waitlist. What this would do...
MARTIN: But you're saying the other people who might not meet the new criteria, who have been, quote, "playing by the rules," would have to go to the back of the line.
ROLLINS: Well, it would just depend. So, yes, that's right. I guess some of them would. But they could look at this system and understand, OK, well, here's what jobs are available in America. Here's the certification I could get. I need to better learn English. And, you know, I can fit into this new system. And, actually, I can get there - and a little bit quicker and be a - you know, a part of the society there.
MARTIN: Even you acknowledge earlier that Nancy Pelosi wasn't far off when she said this is dead on arrival. Even Lindsey Graham, Senator Graham - arguably one of the president's closest friends in Congress - said it doesn't have a chance of passing. So what's the point of this? Is it about 2020?
ROLLINS: I don't - well, no - yes and no. What I would say is I don't necessarily agree - and we in the White House don't agree it's necessarily dead on arrival. I mean, this system is very - lots of Democrats in the polling would agree with something like this, the tech-based industry. They're strengthening ports of entry all around the country.
I think - we think there are a lot of things in here that the Democrats would like if they would come to the table and just start the discussion with us. So we're very, very hopeful over the next months and the coming year that we can move this forward. We're really, really hopeful. And we're going to work really hard to do that.
MARTIN: Brooke Rollins, assistant to President Trump in the White House Office of American Innovation, thank you for your time.
ROLLINS: Thank you, Rachel. My pleasure.
MARTIN: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and was listening to that conversation. So Joel, we heard Brooke Rollins there say she thinks the Democrats might be able to find something in here that they can support. But this thing doesn't even address Democratic priorities like DACA, right?
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: That's right. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children - there's nothing here about that or the - you know, the rest of the 11 million undocumented already living in the country, as you said.
MARTIN: And we haven't physically seen this proposal.
ROSE: That's right. They've held it very close to the vest. We've, you know, heard some general description of what's in it, but we haven't really seen the details yet. You know, and it's interesting that they haven't released the - you know, the chapter and verse yet.
MARTIN: OK. We'll see.
NPR's Joel Rose, we appreciate it.
ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.