AP

In the midst of a lengthy and mostly familiar discussion of the lawless state of America’s southern border during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, President Donald Trump said, rather unexpectedly, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” That line immediately attracted the ire of restrictionists, many of whom noted that the “in the largest numbers ever” part was not in Trump’s prepared remarks. Given his propensity toward hyperbole, this could be dismissed as little more than a rhetorical flourish. One wonders, though, if it’s a sign of things to come.

For one thing, it’s in keeping with Trump’s apparent openness to high-skill admissions, as evidenced by his stated desire to revamp the H-1B visa program“to encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the U.S.” Embracing high-skill immigration could give Trump something to talk about other than his polarizing border wall.

And the president could use a dose of immigration centrism. Trump’s fixation on a border wall has done little to boost his political fortunes, let alone the restrictionist cause. There is considerable evidence that his vocal opposition to immigration has made voters more inclined to support immigration, rather than less; though this effect is most pronounced among Democrats, as one might expect, Republicans haven’t been entirely immune. The net effect of Trump’s rise seems to be that while a shrinking GOP coalition has embraced restrictionism, the country as a whole is moving firmly in the opposite direction. Though jettisoning the cause of immigration control would be a mistake, railing against immigration per se has proved a dead end.

What could the Trump administration do to change the conversation? The White House has already called for a small tweak to the H-1B visa lottery that would significantly boost the chances that foreigners with advanced degrees from U.S. universities would be able to remain in the country as guest workers. Trump could go further by expanding the number of H-1B visas, an idea that restrictionists tend to oppose, while increasing the H-1B minimum wage, an idea they generally support. Taken together, these policies might help Trump woo high-wage employers eager to hire talented foreign workers, or at least make them less hostile to his broader agenda.

Of course, this would do little to ease the path of H-1B visas who’d like to permanently settle in the U.S. As it happens, Trump has tweeted that “H1-B [sic] holders in the United States can rest assured that changes are soon coming which will bring both simplicity and certainty to your stay, including a potential path to citizenship.” One path to citizenship could be adjusting the allocation of green cards so that aspiring immigrants who have already secured remunerative employment in the U.S.—H-1B holders tend to fit the bill—are given higher priority over those who apply purely on the basis of extended family ties. Last year, then-Senator Jeff Flake proposed shifting family-preference visas for the siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens to employment-preference categories that grant green cards on the basis of skills. If Trump really wants “to encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the U.S.,” this would be a surefire way to do it.

This doesn’t sound like a terribly Trumpy approach. But the president has charged Jared Kushner with brokering a bipartisan deal on immigration (and for that, he deserves our sympathy). No one is especially confident Democrats and Republicans in Congress will devise a border-security compromise over the coming days that President Trump will deem worthy of support, including the president himself. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump pegged the chances that a satisfactory deal would be struck at “less than 50-50,” which is to say he’s not quite convinced of his son-in-law’s negotiating prowess.

But if the White House looks beyond the current impasse, to the larger question of how Trump and his allies might reorient the immigration debate, Kushner’s effort could still bear fruit. Although Jared has sometimes been derided as an ingenuous junior plutocrat who makes Howard Schultz look like a centrist Machiavelli, no less an authority than Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and a Trump confidant, has said, “There is simply no one more influential in the White House on the president than Jared Kushner.” And Tuesday night’s speech might reflect his influence.

It’s worth at least considering the possibility that the president has been touting the virtues of H-1B holders for a reason, and that his praise for legal immigrants in the State of the Union was more than a mental lapse.

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