DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, unfair is a word that President Trump seems to like to use. He uses it when he talks about Washington. He's used it when he's been talking about the media. Now he is using the term unfair to describe the country's immigration system.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
That's right. He says it's so unfair that he wants to cut legal immigration in half over the next decade. So yesterday, Trump started pushing a new bill for a merit-based immigration system. His senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, addressed some of the criteria that they would like to consider.
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STEPHEN MILLER: Does the applicant speak English? Can they support themselves and their families financially? Do they have a skill that will add to the U.S. economy? Are they being paid a high wage?
CHANG: Now the lawmakers sponsoring this bill call it the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy - or the RAISE Act. But the question is can they raise enough support to get it passed?
GREENE: Let's bring in NPR's John Burnett, who spends a lot of time covering immigration. Hi, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Morning, David.
GREENE: So can you explain how what we're describing as a merit-based immigration system would be different from the current system we have now?
BURNETT: Yeah, I mean, Trump has been hammering on the enforcement of laws against illegal immigration during his whole term, you know, but during the campaign, he was also passionate about changing legal immigration. And so this proposed law would fundamentally change the way that immigration's structured in America. It would really be the most profound change since Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act on Ellis Island in 1965.
This new crowd of immigration restrictionists that's close to Trump wants to cut, as you said, the number of green cards from a million, currently, to half that over a period of 10 years. But even more importantly, it changes the type of immigrant who gets a permanent resident card - who's invited to come to America.
Currently, most people get a green card that are based on what's called chain immigration, or family-based immigration, and they get to come if they have a direct relative who's already living here. This proposed bill would push them to the end of the line. It would change our priorities to a skills-based system, inviting immigrants who have the best persperation - the best preparation for jobs, who speak the language, have better education. It's a system that looks more like Canada's or Australia's than ours, and it would also cut the number of refugees in half.
GREENE: So he's saying this would help the economy. What exactly is that rationale, if you can explain it?
BURNETT: Well, one of the bill's authors, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, says there's simply too many unskilled immigrants coming into the country, and they're competing for jobs against low-skilled Americans, especially those with only a high school education or depressing wages.
But, you know, there's also a cultural rationale. They say that the U.S. does have one of the highest rates of immigration in the world. And so they say let the American melting pot cool off for a while.
GREENE: But, John, hasn't there been an argument for a while that there are businesses in the United States that rely a lot on the immigrant workforce? So couldn't this work in the opposite direction when it comes to the economy?
BURNETT: Yeah, so U.S. business is generally very pro-immigration, and they say we need this robust immigration program that lets a lot of people in because baby boomers are aging out of the workforce and there are lots of low-paying jobs and that U.S.-born Americans are passing up - like those in agriculture, construction and food processing.
GREENE: All right, NPR's John Burnett talking to us on Skype, there. John, thanks as always. We appreciate it.
BURNETT: You bet, David.
GREENE: Now, Ailsa, I mean, immigration is an issue that is often really high on the minds of many of President Trump's supporters.
CHANG: Yeah, and he will be able to talk about it directly with them later today at an event in West Virginia. This will be his chance to say he is fulfilling a campaign promise. Here's what he told supporters last year.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Every time an African-American citizen or a Hispanic citizen or any citizen loses their job to an illegal immigrant, the rights of that American citizen have been totally violated.
CHANG: But despite the promises, Trump is still waiting for some legislative wins.
GREENE: And let's bring in NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, good morning to you.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: Are we going to hear a lot about this immigration plan when the president's in West Virginia today?
MONTANARO: Well, you know, between that and coal, of course, there - they...
GREENE: Coal is king in West Virginia.
MONTANARO: Absolutely, they're going to be two of the things that are going to be most talked about. You know, no single issue has been a greater animating factor for the Republican base over the past decade than immigration, except maybe Obamacare. And we know with the failure of those GOP health care efforts in Congress, perhaps it's no surprise that the White House would be focusing on this.
GREENE: So is this part of a larger strategy we are seeing right now from the Trump White House - saying, OK, approval ratings are very low - the key, at least first and foremost, the priority needs to be making sure the base is shored up and happy?
MONTANARO: Well, I mean, I mentioned health care. The president has no legislative successes, really. And his poll numbers, as you noted, are low, even for him, with evidence of some slippage among his base, if not in support, but in enthusiasm.
So what's Trump resorting to? A tried and true political strategy in American politics - culture wars. That's especially true putting this new immigration policy in context. If you think about it, some other decisions made over the past week - be it that transgender ban in the military, the Department of Justice decision on affirmative action and suing for reverse racism, and talk of unshackling law enforcement to deal with, quote, "animals who should be roughed up a little." So when you get something done through usual avenues, or when you can't get something done through usual avenues, you know, keep the troops up - keep the troops fired up with a dose of cultural grievance, really.
GREENE: And could that work to help his agenda? I mean, you look at the poll numbers now. They dropped again overall. They dropped even among Republicans, so, you know, the narrative could be that that doesn't look good for an agenda that's already in trouble. Or is there another narrative that could be at play here?
MONTANARO: Again, this is really about enthusiasm with the base, you know. Trump's ratings have been pretty bad as president, but they were pretty bad as a candidate, too. But a new Quinnipiac poll out yesterday showed Trump lower than he's ever been - at 33 percent approval - and that's because of the percentage of Republicans who are starting to slip away. The percentage who strongly approved of Trump dropped from 63 percent in June to 53 percent over the last two months - so a 10-point drop.
And, you know, a smart Republican I talked to yesterday said that the challenge is for every political action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. And I think many Main Street Republicans, let alone Independents, will bristle at proposals they consider to be exceptionally exclusionary, particularly in the absence of addressing issues that traditionally animate the whole party, like tax reform - something we're not talking about.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks as always. We appreciate your time this morning.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
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GREENE: Let's turn abroad. Thousands of Syrian refugees are going back to their homeland. And we should say, this is not because things have improved there.
CHANG: No, yesterday these refugees boarded buses and traveled from camps in Lebanon back to a rural northern part of Syria. The decision they made to go there was actually a really difficult one. Many felt it might be their best chance to escape hostility they experienced in Lebanon. But what if your best chance for less hostility is still in the middle of a war zone?
GREENE: A very difficult question. NPR's correspondent in Beirut, Ruth Sherlock, is on the line. Hi there, Ruth.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi there, David.
GREENE: So these refugees - not going back by choice. That's one thing we know.
SHERLOCK: Yeah, so I would say that basically they are getting on buses, but they don't feel safe to go back. This is a choice between some terrible options. It's basically because of a ceasefire that happened between Hezbollah and rebel groups that have been fighting on the border here with Lebanon, and just inside Lebanon, as well. Some of those groups, who are connected to al-Qaida - Hezbollah launched these attacks and tried to push these guys out, and they won.
But - so the rebels have agreed to withdraw, and their families are here, too, and they're leaving also. And then there's also other people who just have been using this area to shelter and who are now also getting on these buses.
GREENE: Can I ask a basic question? Where are these buses going? Because I know there are some parts of Syria that, you know, may, in theory, be safer for these refugees than others.
SHERLOCK: So these buses are going to Idlib; that's a rebel-held province far in the North. And I should say these refugees are not getting on that bus to go home. Most of them don't even know that area. It's an area that's controlled by the opposition. And the Syrian government has been pushing for anyone who has ties with the opposition, if they want to come back to Syria, to go into that area so that they can consolidate control over other parts of Syria by pushing out anybody who might oppose them there.
But it's not safe. You know, it's still very much a war zone. Yesterday, I spoke with one of the refugees who was just about to get on the bus. This is Abu Omar, and he's a nurse.
ABU OMAR: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: So here he's saying that all his family have - all they have now are the clothes on their back. You know, they've been displaced so many times they really have nothing left. And they're getting on this bus, but they don't even know where they're going to live when they get to Idlib.
GREENE: And I guess in the broader context it's worth remembering, I mean, some of these refugees might be heading back to Syria, but there's still millions living outside of Syria - many of them young. What happens to them?
SHERLOCK: Well, there's a new study that's just come out on this. It's by a polling agency called ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller, and they polled some 3,500 young Syrians. They were all between the ages of 18 and 24. And what's interesting is that more than half of them said that they don't think they'll actually ever go back to Syria.
I spoke with - I then spoke with some refugees yesterday, and they all said to me, you know, we also don't see a way to go back because - Abu Omar from Yarmouk, which is a suburb of Damascus - and it's being shelled, and it's being besieged. And people have starved there. And he said, you know, for me, Yarmouk - the memories I have of it are the people, and they're simply - they're not there anymore. They've all left, so why would I go back?
GREENE: Difficult choices. NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Ruth, thanks a lot. We appreciate it.
SHERLOCK: Thanks very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOAB'S "TRADITIONAL JORDANIAN MUSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.