President Trump on Thursday unveiled a long-awaited immigration overhaul that would dramatically alter how the U.S. accepts people into the country, upending the system in order to favor admissions based on merit rather than family ties.
"If adopted, our plan will transform America's immigration system into the pride of our nation and the envy of the modern world," Trump said from the Rose Garden.
The proposal would judge immigrants with a points-based system that would favor high-skilled workers -- accounting for age, English proficiency, education and whether the applicant has a well-paying job offer.
Currently, only about 12 percent of immigrants are admitted based on employment and skills, while 66 percent are admitted based on family connections inside the U.S. Administration officials estimate that those numbers would flip to 57 and 33 percent, respectively, under the Trump plan.
"Currently 66 percent of legal immigrants come here based on random chance, they're admitted solely because they have a relative in the United States, and it doesn't really matter who that relative is," Trump said.
He said the plan would help recruit "top talent."
"We discriminate against genius," Trump said of current policies. "We discriminate against brilliance. We won't anymore once we get this passed."
The average yearly wage of legal immigrants is approximately $43,000. Administration officials said Wednesday that immigrants admitted based on education and skills would have an average income of $126,000, and they would expect the average yearly wage of all immigrants to rise to roughly $96,000.
Trump has long sought to end what he has called “chain migration” as part of his broader push to reform America’s immigration laws and who is allowed into the country.
He has also frequently called for the end to the visa lottery program, something his immigration plan seeks to do. It would be replaced by a new "Build America Visa" program that would recognize "extraordinary talent" and "people with professional and specialized vocations," including exceptional students.
The plan does not deal with those already in the country illegally, including those who came to the country as children and were protected under an Obama-era executive order. However, Trump said it closes loopholes so that gang members and criminals are inadmissible, and would stop frivolous asylum claims.
"For criminals already here, we will ensure their swift deportation," he said.
Trump said the proposal would also require immigrants to be financially self-sufficient, learn English and pass a civics exam before admission.
"Through these steps, we will deliver an immigration system that strengthens our traditions, our culture and our values," he said.
The plan could face some opposition from some conservatives as it does not reduce overall rates of immigration. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower levels of immigration, called it a "positive effort" but flagged the failure to reduce legal immigration levels.
"This plan represents a very positive effort on immigration, and includes important provisions such as limits to chain migration, closing the loopholes that are allowing the flow of drugs and migrants at the southern border and a crackdown on visa overstays," he said in a statement. "It is concerning there was no mention of E-Verify. However, it is not likely to become legislation, but is rather a statement of the president's goals. As such, the fact that it does not even call for a modest reduction in total immigration, but instead offsets decreases with increases in 'skills-based' immigration, is very concerning."
But Trump said the plan will present a “clear contrast” with Democrats’ immigration plans.
“Democrats are proposing open borders, lower wages and frankly, lawless chaos,” he said. “We are proposing an immigration plan that puts the jobs, wages and safety of American workers first.”
“Our plan is pro-American, pro-immigrant, and pro-worker,” he said. “It’s just common sense.”
Democrats dismissed Trump’s plan before it was even announced, indicating an uphill climb in Congress. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said earlier Thursday that the plan “isn’t a serious attempt at immigration reform.”
“It repackages the same partisan, radical anti-immigrant policies that the administration has pushed for the two years – all of which have struggled to earn even a simple majority in the Senate let alone 60 votes,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., described the Trump plan as "dead-on-arrival" and "not a remotely serious proposal."
"The White House has repackaged the worst of its past failed immigration plans: greenlighting the Administration’s barbaric family detention policies, reviving the President’s ineffective and wasteful wall, completely abandoning our patriotic and determined Dreamers and gutting our asylum and refugee protections, which the evangelical community has called the ‘crown jewel of American humanitarianism,'" Pelosi said in a statement. "To say that this plan’s application criteria are ‘merit-based’ is the height of condescension."
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that Trump's proposal was "based on a set of falsehoods aimed at only allowing immigrants from certain favored nations or backgrounds.
"This new proposal is a non-starter and another example of how this President continues to base his immigration policies on xenophobic and false stereotypes about immigrants from certain parts of the world," Hoyer added. "... If we close ourselves off from the world, shut ourselves in with walls and closed minds, we do so at our own peril and at the expense of the better future we forfeit."
Trump seemed to acknowledge the challenge of getting Democratic support in his remarks from the Rose Garden: "If for some reason, possibly political, we can't get the Democrats to approve this merit-based high-security plan, then we will get it approved immediately after the election when we take back the House, keep the Senate and of course hold the presidency."
Trump’s immigration proposal comes as the administration is scrambling separately to deal with the more pressing challenge of illegal immigration on the southern border.
Customs and Border Protection said it apprehended or turned away more than 109,000 migrants attempting to cross the border in April, the second month in a row the number has topped 100,000.
A bill unveiled by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Wednesday would end asylum claims from Central America at the border, and return unaccompanied minors to their home countries.
Fox News’ Gregg Re, John Roberts and The Associated Press contributed to this report.