Special: White House announces new immigration policy

Aug. 16, 2019 AT 9:25 p.m. EDT

The panelists discussed the role of immigration in the 2020 election and the Trump administration’s new “public charge” rule, aimed at denying green cards and citizenship to legal immigrants who use public aid programs.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.

Another shift in President Trump’s immigration policy as the administration announced it would deny green cards to immigrants who seek out food stamps, Medicaid, and other forms of public assistance, while favoring wealthier immigrants.

ACTING USCIS DIRECTOR KEN CUCCINELLI: (From video.) If people are not able to be self-sufficient, then this negative factor is going to bear very heavily against them in a decision about whether they’ll be able to become a legal permanent resident.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I am tired of seeing our taxpayer paying for people to come into the country and immediately go onto welfare and various other things. So I think we’re doing it right.

MR. COSTA: Immigrant groups and Democrats are fighting back. California Senator Kamala Harris, who’s running for president, said the comments of Acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli are troubling.

SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA): (From video.) I think it’s ironic that Mr. Cuccinelli would take such a position knowing that we admitted immigrants from Italy and from Ireland and from Poland and from Germany and many places who were fleeing famine, who were fleeing hardship, who were fleeing harm. And our position was that wherever you come from, give us your tired, your poor, your sick.

MR. COSTA: And 13 states have filed a legal challenge, including California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who warns the crackdown could have an adverse effect on the economy.

Joining me tonight, Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief for The New York Times; Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal; Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for The Washington Post; and Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News.

Toluse, is this another mark of Stephen Miller inside of the White House trying to restrict legal immigration?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA: Yeah, this policy has Stephen Miller’s hands all over it, but also has Donald Trump’s hands on it. He has always wanted to reshape the way the country lets in people. He has said that he wants more immigrants from Norway, a wealthy white country, and less people from S-hole countries in Africa or elsewhere, and this is one way that he’s hoping to do that, by having this public charge rule that not only restricts people who have used public benefits but also has this kind of weird prospective angle where government bureaucrats will have to say whether or not someone will likely end up using public benefits in the future, which is, as The Wall Street Journal editorial board put earlier this week, is not a conservative idea having the government decide. But this is something that the Trump administration wants to do to reduce the number of people coming into the country and reshape the type of people coming into the country.

ELISABETH BUMILLER: It’s also going to affect the people who are in the country legally who are applying for green cards, and we have – about – this is going to affect, we think, about 400,000 legal immigrants who are applying for green cards who will not meet the income threshold. Right now if you make above 60,000 a year you’re OK, but there’s a lot of immigrants who do not make that and that’s going to make it very, very hard for them to get green cards. Of course, it’s being challenged.

MR. COSTA: What’s the effect of that? Could it lead to a labor shortage?

MS. BUMILLER: Well, yes, there already is a labor shortage for unskilled labor. There’s a shortage among hospital workers, among the elderly – care for the elderly, among farmworkers. Yes, and those people do not make $60,000 a year.

GERALD SEIB: You know, it’s interesting because this is – these are steps to limit legal immigration. There’s a lot of, well, it’s all about illegal immigration. Well, it’s not. You have this step, and plus something else that’s been going on in the background is companies are finding that it’s difficult to get the government to renew H-1B visas. These are for higher-skilled workers. They get an H-1B visa, and in the past it’s been just sort of a matter of routine to get that renewed as it expires. Well, companies are finding that a higher and higher percentage over the last two years of H-1B visa holders are being denied their renewal, so they have to go back home. So it’s another way in which legal immigration is sort of quietly being reduced while most of the conversation is about illegal immigration.

ANDREA MITCHELL: And there’s so many racial overtones to this. It is so deeply offensive to have Cuccinelli – Ken Cuccinelli, whom you showed in that opening segment – rewriting Emma Lazarus this week. I mean, how do they justify that? That’s what America is. It’s the essential concept of America, the welcome mat. And that is –

MR. COSTA: Could this – could this change the face of America?

MS. MITCHELL: Absolutely. I mean, if this were to stand it will very rapidly change the face. But the labor shortages are going to be profound, especially in lower-skilled farm communities and other, you know, manufacturing communities. But throughout the sector and including these higher-educated people who Jerry just spoke to.

MR. COSTA: And the Post had a story this week, Toluse, about the elder boom in states like Maine where, as Elizabeth was saying, there’s no one really to work with older people.

MR. OLORUNNIPA: Yeah. And to fact-check what the president was saying, most of the immigrants who come to the country, especially legal immigrants, do not come and just get on the public dole. In fact, they’re not actually allowed to do that. But if you look at the labor participation rates among immigrants, they’re actually higher than native-born Americans. People who come here generally come here to seek a better life, to work in some of the industries where native-born Americans aren’t working, in some of the elderly care facilities where, you know, you’re working – you’re standing on your feet for 12 hours a day. You’re not making a ton of money, but you’re doing work that is important to the economy.

And immigrants have traditionally done a lot of that work. And then their children have come in and been able to succeed within the culture. That’s something that we’ve seen over decades, but it seems like Ken Cuccinelli and the Trump administration are sort of rewriting some of that history, and saying only if you can stand on your own two feet from the minute you get here should you be allowed in. And I think that’s something that we have to continually call out and make sure that we are reporting, the way that the history of America has been, and not just the way the Trump administration has said.

MR. COSTA: Where is Congress? The president’s using executive orders, again – (laughter) – to make immigration policy.

MR. SEIB: Well, I think that’s a valid question on many fronts. Where’s Congress on trade? I mean, there are a lot of issues in which Congress has basically punted. And this isn’t only under the Trump administration. This has been going on for a while. And the Senate in particular right now is just punting away its prerogatives to the executive branch over and over again. I think it’s true on immigration. I think it’s true on a lot of issues.

MS. MITCHELL: Health care.

MR. SEIB: And health care.

MS. BUMILLER: Climate change. Environmental policies.

MR. COSTA: Elizabeth, The New York Times reported this week that this will almost certainly disadvantage poor people from Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia, and immigrants from Canada and Europe are least likely to face problems. That’s according to a Migration Policy Institute study that was in The New York Times.

MS. BUMILLER: Well, this is about people of color. And we know what the president said actually to Times reporters in the Oval Office about not wanting people from those kind of – certain people from those kind of countries in. I’m not going to repeat what he said. But it’s very distressing. It’s – this is not the history of our country. These are not the values of the United States. You know, I’m an immigrant. (Laughs.) And most of us at this table have immigration in our background, not very far back.

MS. MITCHELL: In fact, my grandparents came from the very small village – then Russian Jewish village – named Antopal, now Belarus – which is exactly where Stephen Miller’s family came from. His uncle wrote about this. I’ve spoken to the uncle, because I know my family history. And the uncle was appalled that his nephew would be rejecting the very history of the Russian Jews that escaped the pogroms.

MR. COSTA: What does this mean for 2020? You look at a state like Texas, trending a little bit blue, immigrant population that’s rising. State even like Georgia. I was just down in the Atlanta suburbs. You have rising Latino communities and Asian American communities outside of Atlanta.

MR. SEIB: Well, I think it’s a mistake not to acknowledge that there is a constituency out here for a much tougher stance on immigration. If this weren’t politically popular, particularly with the Trump base but not only with the Trump base, it wouldn’t be happening. And I think what Democrats are going to have to do is figure out a way to say: We are in favor of immigration, but we’re also in favor of keeping our border with Mexico under control. And right now, they’re not really delivering that message. They’re talking about decriminalizing illegal immigration to the U.S.

MS. BUMILLER: Right. That was – they went a little far in that last debate, obviously. But is there a constituency for opposing legal immigration?

MR. SEIB: Well, that’s my point. Not much of one, but it’s happening anyway. I think that’s kind of strange.

MS. MITCHELL: And the other thing that the State Department is doing – first of all Mulvaney, but also the State Department – they – Mulvaney is ordering rescissions in the State Department budget for the Northern Triangle countries. And the State Department already took back that money. The president cancelled it by executive order. So projects that were working – we were down there. We saw it El Salvador. FBI agents were down there working with El Salvador. Now Guatemala has reluctantly agreed to process asylum seekers there. They’re completely ill-equipped. But we have cancelled the foreign aid that was trying to ameliorate the problems in those three countries.

MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our Washington Week website. While you’re online check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. See you next time.


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