Trump’s Immigration Plan Gets a Rose Garden Rollout and a Cool Reception

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s Rose Garden speech outlining a major overhaul of the nation’s immigration system was intended to strike a centrist, conciliatory tone on the issue that would appeal to Democrats and make them seem unreasonable for criticizing it.

But within minutes of taking the podium on Thursday, Mr. Trump struck a more familiar tone, bashing Democrats as advocates of “open borders, lower wages and, frankly, lawless chaos” and promoting the importance of constructing a “desperately needed” wall along the southwestern border — a move they have vehemently opposed.

The president also framed the immigration debate in terms of his re-election campaign, threatening that if Democrats refused to support what he called his “merit-based, high-security plan,” he would pass it “immediately after the election, when we take back the House, keep the Senate and, of course, hold the presidency.”

Democrats and immigration advocates have long opposed many of the proposals outlined by Mr. Trump, like scaling back the family-based immigration system, which allows immigrants to bring their spouses and children to live with them, and replacing it with a merit-based system that would provide opportunities for immigrants with valuable job skills and education.

But Mr. Trump framed his merit-based proposal, which he said would rely on a points system that would reward immigrants who have skills and education, as in line with American values. “We discriminate against genius,” Mr. Trump said. “We discriminate against brilliance. We won’t anymore, once we get this passed.”

In his speech — a relatively low-energy address after which Mr. Trump uncharacteristically did not take questions from the news media — the president also said future immigrants would be required to learn English, pass a civics exam and be financially self-sufficient before they are admitted into the United States.

But the proposal that White House officials said was intended to outline a basic set of principles that all parties could agree on seemed to encounter almost immediate opposition.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, in a speech on the Senate floor, dismissed the White House plan as “a political document that is anti-immigration reform.” He said it simply repackaged “the same partisan, radical anti-immigrant policies” that the administration has been promoting for two years.

Mr. Schumer said a plan that did not address protections for the so-called Dreamers — the roughly 700,000 young, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children — or the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States was a nonstarter. “It ain’t happening,” he said, criticizing Mr. Trump’s top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, as “virulently anti-immigrant.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a statement, criticized the plan for its focus on a wall and for “gutting our asylum and refugee protections.”

And Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, notably did not offer an endorsement of the plan. “I look forward to reviewing the president’s proposal,” he said in a statement.

Some Republicans did voice support, like Senator David Perdue of Georgia, who called it a “serious” proposal and said he would work with the White House to move toward a merit-based system.

Mr. Trump’s latest immigration proposal was drafted by Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, and Mr. Miller, who spent months working on a plan that would double as a central plank of Mr. Trump’s 2020 campaign.

Mr. Kushner’s idea was that it would address universally agreed upon principles — like securing the border, protecting wages, attracting talent and unifying families — while driving home the point that Mr. Trump is in favor of legal immigration.

The two senior White House advisers, in an effort to appear as a united front, had a series of meetings with lawmakers and business groups before Mr. Trump’s speech, with the goal of getting all 53 Republican Senators to sponsor the legislation.

In part of its push to drum up support for the bill, the White House hosted about 30 Republican House and Senate communications staff members on Thursday morning for a presentation on the White House proposal.

But efforts to get Republican lawmakers on board, so far, have been met with skepticism, and many question how it would be carried out without any bipartisan support.

When Mr. Kushner and Mr. Miller met with Republican senators on Tuesday at a regular lunch, Senator Susan Collins of Maine asked Mr. Kushner if DACA — the program that shields Dreamers from deportation — was part of the plan. Mr. Kushner responded that he “wasn’t tasked with that,” according to an aide in the room.

When pressed by Senator John Cornyn of Texas about how the plan “spoke” to immigrants, Mr. Kushner responded: “We have been defined for too long by what we were against,” rather than what they were for. Many people in attendance walked away with low expectations that any part of the plan would result in any legislation.

Mr. Trump’s immigration speech was almost postponed this week as officials scrambled to find an appropriate location. Mr. Kushner wanted to elevate the moment, and officials explored the possibility of Mr. Trump delivering his remarks in front of the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of the country’s hospitality to immigrants, where a new museum opened Thursday.

That backdrop would have also carried historical significance. In 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act — the legislation that set into motion the current, family-based immigration system — he signed it on Liberty Island.

White House officials ultimately staged Mr. Trump’s speech in the Rose Garden because, one said, they wanted members of Congress in the audience demonstrating their support.

And the president noted the large crowd assembled: “There are a tremendous number of people from the House, the Senate and my cabinet,” he said. “I love you all.”