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News Brief: Immigration Plan, U.S.-Iran Relations, Student Loan Probe


President Trump is expected to unveil a new plan today that would dramatically reshape the legal immigration system.


That's right. Yesterday the president called on Congress to pass legislation that would end sanctuary cities and the practice that's known as catch and release.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Tremendous problems occurs at the southern border, from drugs to the wrong people being allowed to come in because of a corrupt and broken system that can be changed in 20 minutes - 20 minutes if they want to change it.

KING: And the administration's new plan will try to change that. White House officials said the plan favors what they called merit-based immigration. It prioritizes high-skilled workers over people with family already in the United States.

GREENE: And let's talk more about this with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who also hosts the NPR Politics Podcast. Good morning, Tam.


GREENE: All right. So we're going to hear a lot more about this in the Rose Garden today, it sounds like - the president giving a speech. What are we expecting exactly?

KEITH: So an administration official describes this as a good-faith effort intended to unify Republicans and start a discussion.


KEITH: This official says that it is a Trump plan that they are hoping will become a Republican plan. What they don't talk a lot about is Democrats. And what this plan doesn't address at all, that will be a problem for Democrats, is it doesn't deal with the 11 million people in the country illegally now. And it doesn't deal with DREAMers.

Those are the young people who came to the U.S. as children and who are here now and whose fate has been thrown into limbo when President Trump eliminated the Obama-era program for these young people known as DREAMers. It also doesn't deal with guest workers.

What it does do is keep immigration levels static but changes the priorities - prioritizes merit-based immigration, people with college degrees, language skills, and reduces the number of green cards who would be given to people seeking asylum or people who have family ties.

GREENE: But so interesting, the president hasn't even spoken about this yet in a speech. And you already have an administration official basically acknowledging that this thing, in its current form, isn't going anywhere.

KEITH: Well, this administration official doesn't see it that way (laughter). But that's right. The plan that they've rolled out is not yet complete. It doesn't deal with some really significant things and is seen as sort of a starting point. Over on Capitol Hill, it's getting mixed responses at best.

And I was talking to someone who is sort of more of an immigration hardliner. His name's Mark Krikorian at the Center for Immigration Studies - a restrictionist. And he says he can't believe that this is the starting point for the administration. He's like, you know, in "The Art Of The Deal," it says go with an aggressive position. Why wouldn't they have cuts to legal immigration is what he's saying. So you have criticism coming from the right and the left. And the plan doesn't quite exist yet...


KEITH: ...In a visual form.

GREENE: But return to what the administration is thinking. I mean, you kind of pushed back on me when I said that this official was saying this was just the beginning of a discussion. They see this as a very serious thing. What exactly are they trying to accomplish?

KEITH: You know, at the very minimum, this official said that they want to show the country that Republicans are not against immigrants. So in some ways, this could be a political document in what is the beginning of a very vigorous political cycle, you know, 2020.

GREENE: A political cycle when immigration could be very much part of the conversation.

KEITH: Absolutely.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right. So Iran's foreign minister says U.S. sanctions on his country are, quote, "unacceptable and uncalled for."

KING: Yeah, things between the U.S. and Iran are tense, to say the least. The Trump administration said this week that there are credible threats against U.S. personnel in the Middle East, but he didn't say what the threats are. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wants top national security officials to tell Congress what the government strategy is on Iran.


CHUCK SCHUMER: If the president and Republicans in Congress are planning to take the United States to conflict, even a war in the Middle East, the American people deserve to know that and they deserve to know why.

GREENE: All right. Let's bring in NPR's Peter Kenyon, who's been following all of this from his post in Istanbul. Hi, Peter.


GREENE: All right. So what do we know about the administration's claim here of some kind of new threat, suggesting Iran could attack U.S. forces in the region?

KENYON: Mainly we have a series of questions about it. Members of Congress want to know. America's allies abroad say they need more information. And there's a report in The New York Times. It says the threat involves missiles that were photographed being loaded onto Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf. That story says it raises fears of a possible naval attack. Others said it might have been defensive.

Either way, if this is confirmed, it still leaves questions - why a possible threat at sea would trigger the evacuation of land-based American personnel in Iraq. There are, of course, Iranian-backed militias there, but they've been there for years. This evacuation does seem, however, to raise the stakes. It causes worries that Washington thinks these tensions with Iran could continue to escalate.

GREENE: And do others in the region fear that things could escalate? Which seems like it's already happening.

KENYON: Yes, in the region and also further afield in Europe. The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, says we're at a crucial and delicate moment. She's calling for maximum restraint. The EU says any military escalation in particular has to be avoided. We've got Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill demanding urgent briefings, they want to know more. And meanwhile, oil prices just keep going up three days in a row now.

GREENE: Has Iran actually said anything in response to the U.S. message about these threats?

KENYON: Yes. Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was on a visit to Tokyo. And besides calling the U.S. sanctions unacceptable and uncalled for, he said Tehran has been exercising maximum restraint so far despite the U.S. pressure campaign. Zarif also said Tehran is still committed to the 2015 nuclear agreement, even though Iran has just recently said it plans to stop abiding by some of its commitments under the deal if its economy doesn't get better in the coming weeks.

President Hassan Rouhani weighed in. He called the sanctions on Iran a crime against humanity. And he said it was a war against - not the government, but the Iranian people.

GREENE: And, Peter, part of the murkiness here was those commercial ships being damaged, including some Saudi oil tankers, which some have suggested Iran might have been involved in. Have we learned anything more about that incident?

KENYON: Well, three countries - Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Norway - have informed the United Nations about damage to commercial ships in the area, damage to hulls, no injuries so far. The U.N. secretary general has condemned the attacks, and he has called for restraint. But really, that's the one thing we are not seeing so far - maximum restraint.

GREENE: Indeed. All right. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, David.


GREENE: OK. Here's something we're exploring. It looks like the Department of Education is getting in the way of policing the student loan industry.

KING: That's right. The director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau spelled out this accusation in a letter. And this is all happening as student loan companies are getting hit by a wave of lawsuits that allege wrongdoing.

GREENE: NPR's Chris Arnold obtained this letter and joins us now to tell us more about it. Hi there, Chris.


GREENE: OK. So this is a letter from the head of the CFPB. Remind us about that agency, where this letter came from and what exactly it says.

ARNOLD: Well, OK. So what's going on here is that Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic senators wanted to know whether the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - that's the CFPB. It's supposed to be this big, powerful watchdog. And they wanted to know, has it been asleep at the switch, basically, with regard to student loans since the Trump administration installed a new director?

And the head of the CFPB, Kathy Kraninger, wrote back and answered their questions in this letter. And the answer was actually pretty striking.

GREENE: It sounds like it. So what exactly is she saying here?

ARNOLD: Well, the letter's carefully worded, but reading it carefully, Kraninger's basically saying that, look, the CFPB's trying to do its job. It's trying to monitor companies that manage student loans for millions of people. But these loan servicing companies are not handing over information that the bureau needs to do supervision. And the reason that they give is, hey, you know, the Education Department told us not to give you any of these documents - not to give them to the CFPB. So...


ARNOLD: ...In other words, the Education Department's getting in the way. And we have some tape here. This is Seth Frotman, who heads up the nonprofit Student Borrower Protection Center.

SETH FROTMAN: It's actually quite remarkable that the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is telling the world that the secretary of education has put in place a series of policies that are obstructing federal law enforcement officials from standing up for the millions of Americans with student debt.

GREENE: I mean, Chris, this is quite an accusation. Can you remind us what's at stake here? Like, why do millions of Americans need - with student debt need to be protected?

ARNOLD: Well, there've been a lot of problems, we've reported on some of them. But if you just look at one program, it's called Public Service Loan Forgiveness - very well intentioned, great program. It's supposed to encourage public service. So police officers, government workers, people who work for nonprofits - if you make payments for 10 years, you're supposed to be able to get the remainder of your student debt forgiven.

We talked to Jessica Saint-Paul. She had about $80,000 in student loans. She worked at this nonprofit for foster children. And for nine years, she makes her payments. And then she's at this conference, and there's an information session on loan forgiveness. And she goes. And she finds out, oh, no. She's in the wrong payment plan, the wrong loan. And she doesn't qualify.

And lots of other people at this conference were finding out the same thing right there. And here's her talking about that.

JESSICA SAINT-PAUL: It was like a support group almost, it turned into, because people were like, no. That can't be true. And people were - I went on my phone. People were going on their phones, their laptops, checking their loan, what type of loan they were in. Like, we were all sitting there, like, just frantic, like - what loan am I in? Wait. Wait. Wait. Let me pull this up. Let me see.

ARNOLD: But Saint-Paul says it was true. If nine years before, her loan servicer had just said, look, do these few simple things, get into this loan, this payment plan, everything would have been fine. Instead, she feels like somebody stole tens of thousands of dollars from her.

SAINT-PAUL: Oh, it's just frustrating. And I just cannot believe this happened to me. You know, I just - that's like criminal. That's not right.

GREENE: I mean, Chris, I guess the last question I have is, what is the Department of Education saying about these accusations?

ARNOLD: Well, the consumer bureau is saying we want to work on this together. The Education Department is kind of doubling down and saying, you know, no. We don't want these companies sharing information with anybody but us because of, quote, "privacy concerns," which is a little bit of a head-scratcher because it's like, well, these are law enforcement agencies. Seth Frotman says the CFPB should flex its muscles more and take loan servicers to court to get the documents.

GREENE: NPR's Chris Arnold. Chris, thanks for your reporting on this.

ARNOLD: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.