Republican senators introduce bill sharply limiting legal immigration

They want to limit “low-skilled” workers just when the Trump administration authorized 15,000 new visas for low-wage workers.

President Donald Trump, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) announcing the introduction of an immigration bill at the White House. CREDIT: Screengrab
President Donald Trump, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) announcing the introduction of an immigration bill at the White House. CREDIT: Screengrab

On Wednesday, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (AR) and David Perdue (GA) released an updated version of a bill that overhauls the country’s legal immigration system, pushing forward the president’s agenda to limit the number of foreigners entering the United States.

Cotton and Perdue’s bill — an updated version of the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act, which was first released in February — seeks to implement a legal immigration system that would push for merit-based immigration, rather than the current system that favors family-based migration. The current set-up is sometimes derisively referred to as “chain migration” because it allows people to sponsor their family members for green cards, creating familial links.

The lawmakers also called to replace so-called “low-skill visas,” typically granted to temporary and seasonal laborers, with a points-based system that would allow immigrants to receive a green card.

During a Wednesday press conference at the White House to unveil the bill, President Donald Trump said the legislation “will reduce poverty, increase wages, and save taxpayers billions and billions of dollars,” couching his language under the guise of demonstrating “compassion for struggling American families…that puts their needs first and America first.”

“This competitive application process will favor applicants who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families, and demonstrate skills that will contribute to our economy,” Trump said. “The RAISE Act prevents new immigrants from collecting welfare and protects U.S. workers from being displaced. That’s a very big thing.”

It’s unclear at this point whether the bill will be able to wind through Congress and end up as law. But it is clear the president wants to sign it. Trump also put his support behind Cotton and Perdue’s proposal last week during a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, during which he said he didn’t want “people that come into this country and immediately go on welfare and stay there for the rest of their lives.” As a matter of federal law, most immigrants are not eligible for public benefits for at least five years.

Immigration restrictionists were elated over the re-introduction of the RAISE Act, noting that it would limit “immigration rights” to immediate family members like spouses and children.

“Passage of this bill would be a major step toward rationalizing and modernizing the federal immigration program,” Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the right-leaning policy organization Center for Immigration Studies, told ThinkProgress in an exchange over Twitter. “It does this in two major ways, first, it reserves special immigration rights only for husbands, wives, and young children of residents. Second, it cleans up our tangle of employment-based immigration categories by creating a streamlined points system designed to select exceptional talents.”

Advocates of comprehensive immigration reform, however, are more skeptical that the bill will advance the debate over the current immigrant population in the United States. They say the legislation would disproportionately affect immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, and African and Caribbean countries.

“This bill has almost nothing to do with increasing the skill level of incoming legal immigrants and almost everything to do with a nativist, white nationalist agenda,” Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director at the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, told ThinkProgress via email. “The net effect will be to slash legal immigration by 50 percent by eliminating multiple categories of legal immigrants, a policy that will disproportionately hurt Asian American U.S. citizens who want to sponsor their loved ones; by capping refugee admissions so that refugees, many of whom are Muslim, are left stranded in camps with nowhere to go; and by eliminating the diversity program, which will hurt Africans and Caribbean immigrants who have few other opportunities to immigrate to America.”

It’s true that the current low-skilled immigration system has its issues. Seasonal agricultural workers — whose immigration statuses are tied to their employment — often work for wages no better than that of undocumented workers. They are routinely cheated out of wages, and are held “virtually captive” by employers, a 2013 Southern Poverty Law Center report found. Some migrant workers are unlikely to report abuse because they’re afraid that their employers won’t hire them again the following season.

But it’s confusing that Trump would call for a limit to low-skilled visas when his administration just increased the number of H-2B visas designed for non-agricultural industry workers (like people who work at his Mar-a-Lago resort and in industries like landscaping, forestry, amusement parks, and housekeeping) by 15,000 more visas for the 2017 fiscal year.

Given that the event also shone a spotlight on Trump’s promise to bring jobs back to American workers, it also seems a bit awkward that Trump would tout any bill cosponsored by Perdue. As the CEO of the failed North Carolina textile company Pillowtex, Perdue said he was proud to have “spent most of my career” outsourcing, as part of a 2005 deposition when his company went bankrupt.