Donald Trump may be nearly the last person at CPAC from whom I would expect a sound idea. His recent contributions to public debate have in the main been noisy dog whistle appeals to racialism and xenophobia, couched in concerns about President Obama’s birth certificate. The impact of these has been nil, apart from making the country more partisan and any sort of governing “vital center” harder to reach. But I couldn’t resist clicking when confronted with Josh Marshall’s snarky headline on TPM: “Trump: Send us your white people.” 

While it was a important concern of mine during the 1990s, the immigration issue has largely ceased to interest me. Recently I’ve written about it mostly to suggest that multiculturalism may well play into paleoconservative foreign policy preferences–and that the neoconservatives may have shot themselves in the foot in their efforts to purge immigrations restrictionists (reformers, they used to be called) in the 1990s.

But if one watches the news, it’s difficult to ignore the GOP’s fumbling on the issue, the  seemingly complete inability of its leaders and spokesmen to find anything positive, forceful or compelling to say. One immigration restrictionist who plays a prominent role in the Washington debate told me recently that GOP congressmen and senators are like deer in the headlights, casting around blindly for the position that will do them the least political harm. And despite the apparent importance of the issue to their party, virtually none of them have done any homework to understand it.

Enter, in his characteristic way, Donald Trump. Anyone in the restaurant and hotel business, which Trump very much is, employs a lot immigrants. My surmise is his attention to immigration law is average for the sector: that is, he will do what he can get away with to hire the best people he can at the lowest wages. In his talk to CPAC he was blunt: the 11 million illegal immigrants who everyone talks about giving a path to legalization are mostly going to become Democrats. That didn’t stop him from saying–almost in a whisper, that of course “we’ve got to do the right thing”–which meant providing the illegals a path to a green card.

But then he said something else. He began talking about the difficulty of immigrating to the U.S. from Europe by the highly educated. Of course he used over the top examples–the brilliant student at Harvard, Wharton, etc, who wasn’t going to work as an illegal alien and couldn’t find a way to work here legally. Such people exist, but are a small relative number. But there’s an important point here, one that that Republicans should jump on. The immigration issue isn’t entirely what to do about the estimated 10-12 million illegal aliens living here “in the shadows.” That’s part of it. But the more important part–entirely ignored by the current GOP (and by Democrats as well, but since immigration is a GOP problem, their ignorance is more critical) is legal immigration.

The essentials of that system haven’t been changed substantially since the 1960s. There are ways to get legally into the country as a refugee, a visa lottery winner, a spouse, or with some sort of professional visa, and perhaps some others. But the largest path to legal citizenship remains nepotism–that is being a relative of someone already here. And that means that “chain immigration”–first generation immigrants bringing in their siblings and parents and in-laws–has priority and largely monopolizes the slots for legal immigration. If your ancestors came here from Italy or Ireland a hundred or more years ago, you are not likely to have many close relatives in the old country who are visa eligible. If you came more recently from Mexico or Nigeria, you surely do. When I first figured this out–while researching an article for Fortune in the late 1980s, I was astonished. So were my editors. But that’s the way it is.

What Trump said, which TPM found so outlandishly amusing, is that educated Europeans ought to have some legal way to immigrate. Yes, I know they do, they can–hire attorneys, finagle some sort of work visa, and then–more legal fees–extend it. But it’s a hassle, and often doesn’t work. Trump said we should let more of the educated in. He’s right. But why not go further, and make education and skills a primary–rather than secondary–way of deciding who should become a legal immigrant? It’s not an especially radical idea: David Brooks touched on the logic of choosing what qualities we should seek in legal immigrants in a 2007 column. Canada and Australia have non-nepotism based systems of choosing legal immigrants.

The point is not that Donald Trump’s criteria or David Brooks’s criteria are necessarily correct, but that the GOP should seek to expand the debate from the limiting and internally divisive parameters where it is now confined. In return for giving the illegal aliens a path to citizenship, couldn’t the GOP acquire some influence over the qualities America seeks in legal immigrants, likely to be even larger over the next generation?