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Trump plays for the middle — and 2020 — with legal-immigration focus

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Ultimately, Trump's new plan is mostly a change in his rhetorical focus — from illegal immigration to overhauling the nation's legal immigration system. -
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President Donald Trump didn't make much of an effort to hide what the latest in his rat-a-tat series of immigration proposals is all about: 2020.

"If for some reason, possibly political, we can't get the Democrats to approve this merit-based, high-security plan," he said during a Rose Garden rollout Thursday, "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."

His ideas are so popular, he suggests, it would be political suicide for Democrats not to join hands with him. He's said similar things before — about his border wall, about stopping migrant caravans, about travel restrictions he once called a "Muslim" ban, and other immigration-related issues.

This time, though, he's searching for more solid footing with the broader electorate by choosing a thin slice of popular turf on which to make his stand.

It's a rare Trump play for the middle.

Ultimately, Trump's new plan is mostly a change in his rhetorical focus — from illegal immigration to overhauling the nation's legal immigration system. It would award more visas based on skills, give out fewer on the basis of family ties, and end the existing lottery system. Overall, the number of legal immigrants would remain the same — a concession to GOP lawmakers who rejected a previous attempt to reduce that flow.

Unlike some of his base-pleasing efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, these concepts poll well with about three-quarters of Americans — all but the most progressive set.

And that's why Democrats rushed Thursday to put a wider lens on his overall policies.

"This dead-on-arrival plan is not a remotely serious proposal," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement in which she accused Trump of "green-lighting" actions his administration is taking that he didn't emphasize in his speech.

And there may be some risk for Trump in his omissions, as activists on both sides of the immigration debate called him out for not prioritizing matters they see as crises — such as the surge of migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border on the political right and the undetermined status of the so-called DREAMers on the left.

But he earned approval from an array of Republican lawmakers and conservative groups, as well as cautious praise from some immigrant advocates.

"The fact that this administration is saying that they want to maintain legal immigration, that's a step forward," Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said in a telephone interview with NBC News.

Noorani, who was apprised of the White House's plans in recent weeks, said it will be important to see what actions follow Trump's words.

"The challenge for example with a point-based system is how do we make sure that we as a country are recruiting the skilled farm worker and the skilled engineer," he said.

Still, some Democratic officials hammered Trump for wanting to make it harder for refugees and legal immigrants' family members to come to the U.S.

"What the president is proposing is a xenophobic, anti-immigrant agenda that if applied to previous generations would have barred millions of European and Asian immigrants from contributing to our country," Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force, said in a statement.

For Democrats who support increasing the number of visas for skilled workers, Trump's positioning could create some discomfort by putting them in the position of either siding with him or opposing their own preferences on the grounds that he's not dealing with immigration in a more comprehensive fashion.

For now, he's found a frame more likely to divide his rivals while keeping his own party mostly intact.

Kay Cole James, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, called it "a step in the right direction."

Trump said his plan would do more to reject illegitimate asylum-seekers speedily, he is still pushing to build his border wall and nothing in the proposal would preclude him from implementing any of the array of ideas administration officials have discussed for dealing with undocumented immigrants.

The pivot to legal immigration left some in his coalition at least a little bit unsettled.

Jenny Beth Martin, honorary chairman of Tea Party Patriots Action, said in a statement that her group was "pleased" with the plan but also leveled some criticism.

"Ending the visa lottery system and increasing merit based immigration practices are two good steps in the effort to realign America's immigration system with our own national priorities, but they're not nearly enough," she said. "Before we try to implement any such reforms, we must first have complete border security — which includes a wall, additional personnel, and technology — or illegal immigration and the crisis at our border will remain the issue at the forefront of the 2020 election."

Trump's plan doesn't address millions of undocumented immigrants who are currently in the country, including the so-called DREAMers who were brought to the U.S. as children, or the treatment of minors and their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, said the plan is "an illusion" that gives Trump space to "own the airwaves" on immigration while side-stepping serious problems.

"We have created the cruelest modern-day policy against children," she said of the situation at the border. "There is no urgency in this plan."

And that's how it will be treated in Congress — with no urgency.