An immigration reform bill that ensures the United States has the best and brightest foreign workers and also legalizes the current undocumented population in the United States has generally been a non-starter conversation since President Donald Trump took office. But major polls published after the president’s inauguration shows that’s exactly the kind of legislation that Americans could see themselves supporting.
Last week, President Donald Trump backed a Senate Republican-led proposal that cuts legal immigration and significantly reduces the annual number of U.S. visas based on a strict definition of merit-based skills. Many voters would support components of the bill, as White House adviser Stephen Miller suggested, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll published Wednesday.
“Public support is so immense on this — if you just look at the polling data in many key battleground states across the country — that over time you’re going to see massive public push for this kind of legislation,” Miller said in defense of the immigration bill cosponsored by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) and supported by the president.
But voters would also support other immigration policies left out by Cotton and Perdue’s bill. Those proposals may be taken up by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is set on working with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to revive a plan to fix the country’s immigration system once he returns to work in the nation’s capital. The pair were on the “Gang of Eight” together in 2013 working on a Senate-passed version of a comprehensive immigration that never got a House floor vote. That bill included bipartisan requirements such as a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and border security measures.
McCain’s latest proposal is publicly unknown. What is known is that an immigration system overhaul attuned to modern migration patterns is long overdue. Based on national polls that came out after Trump’s inauguration, here are some broad provisions that the majority of Americans would want to see in an immigration bill:
Dealing with the undocumented population
Soon after his inauguration, Trump signed executive orders broadly authorizing federal immigration agents to detain and deport all undocumented immigrants. As a result, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have since detained undocumented immigrants, regardless of their criminal offenses.
That policy counters what the majority of Americans want. A March 2017 CNN/ORC poll found that 71 percent of 1,025 respondents do not believe in deporting all undocumented immigrants, while 78 percent favor deporting criminal immigrants. That could mean federal officers could once again devote enforcement resources on immigrants with serious criminal convictions. At the moment however, it appears that immigrant moms, dads, and high-achieving teenagers without criminal records are being scooped up in the deportation raids too.
The Trump administration may want to deport the undocumented population, but the majority of Americans want a compassionate solution. The same March 2017 CNN/ORC poll found a strong majority of Americans, 90 percent, approve of a pathway to citizenship so long as immigrants fulfill requirements like having been here for a number of years, holding a job, speaking English, and are willing to pay back taxes that they owe.
Dealing with legal immigrants
Current immigration patterns are generally based on family sponsorship, which allows U.S. citizens to sponsor a relative applicant to legally live into the United States. Cotton and Perdue’s bill would drastically reduce the type of relatives that can be sponsored to just spouses and minor children instead of extended family members.
According to an August 2017 Politico/Morning Consult poll, Americans would likely support components of Cotton and Perdue’s bill that place emphasis on an immigration system based on job skills rather than family-based sponsorship. But that doesn’t mean that family-based immigration isn’t important. The survey question, “When it comes to determining who is allowed to legally immigrate to the United
States, should a greater emphasis be placed on…” elicited 36 percent of 1,992 registered voter respondents to respond “the applicant’s ties to family members in the United States” — almost as high as the 39 percent who picked “the job skills of an applicant.”
Trump has often railed against the H-1B visa program used by many tech companies to bring in high-skilled foreign workers to work as engineers, computer scientists, and programmers. Both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security have stated their agencies would scrutinize employers who use the program to crack down on visa fraud.
A survey of 2,000 registered voters from a February 2017 Politico/Morning Consult poll, found that Americans are pretty evenly split towards whether the number of H-1B visa holders should be increased or decreased annually. Congress currently sets the annual visa cap at 65,000. About 45 percent of voters in the poll believe that H-1B visa workers generally help the U.S. economy. That would likely mean that any change in the annual cap would upset people on either end of the immigration debate. Yet despite criticism from the administration, a recent study from the Center for Global Development found that the H-1B visa program helped elevate the net gains of both the United States and India by about $431 million, Fortune reported.
In explaining his support for Cotton and Perdue’s bill, the president insisted that he was demonstrating “compassion for struggling American families,” a plan that would cut the number of low-skilled workers in the country. “The RAISE Act prevents new immigrants from collecting welfare and protects U.S. workers from being displaced,” the president said at the time.
It’s not really clear what Americans think based on past polls. On the one hand, a significant number of Americans likely agree with the president that there should be fewer low-skilled workers. About 42 percent of voters believe the United States allows in too many low-skilled workers, according to the August 2017 Politico/Morning Consult poll, a five-point drop from a February 2017 Politico/Morning Consult poll which posed a similar question. But as a June 2017 Gallup poll which surveyed 1,009 people pointed out, 72 percent of respondents say immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want. As previously documented, that includes workers in the agricultural and food processing industries.
Low-skilled immigration, which is largely invisible work that helps to run the economy, is important. That was made clear last month when the Department of Labor and Department of Homeland Security announced the sudden increase of 15,000 H-2B seasonal worker visas in the 2017 fiscal year to fill a labor shortage in non-agricultural jobs. Reality bears out that agricultural workers–an industry largely dominated by foreign labor from Latin American countries– are needed as farms continue to face labor shortages.
With this kind of majority recognition for immigrant labor, an ideal immigration bill could include a provision that makes it more difficult to exploit laborers in these temporary immigration statuses where their visas are tied to their employment.