Republican plan to slash legal immigration wins Trump's support

Legislation would replace the current process for obtaining legal permanent residency, or green cards, creating a skills-based point system for employment visas

Senator David Perdue in the Roosevelt Room at the White House with senator Tom Cotton and Donald trump.  EPA/Zach Gibson / POOL
Senator David Perdue in the Roosevelt Room at the White House with senator Tom Cotton and Donald trump. EPA/Zach Gibson / POOL

WASHINGTON // President Donald Trump has embraced legislation that would dramatically reduce legal immigration and shift the nation toward a system that prioritises merit and skills over family ties.

Mr Trump joined with Republican senators David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas to promote the bill, which so far has gained little traction in the Senate.

"This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and puts America first," Mr Trump said during an event on Wednesday in the White House's Roosevelt Room.

It was the latest example of the president championing an issue that animated the core voters of his 2016 campaign, following decisions to pull out of the Paris climate treaty and ban transgender people from the military.

Mr Perdue and Mr Cotton's legislation would replace the current process for obtaining legal permanent residency, or green cards, creating a skills-based point system for employment visas. The bill would also eliminate the preference for US residents' extended and adult family members, while maintaining priority for their spouses and minor children.

Overall, immigration would be slashed 41 per cent in the legislation's first year and 50 per cent in its 10th. The bill would also aim to slash the number of refugees in half and eliminate a program that provides visas to people from countries with low rates of immigration.

The rollout included a combative press briefing led by Trump policy aide Stephen Miller, who clashed with the media over the plan and accused one reporter of being "cosmopolitan" when he suggested it would only bring in English-speaking people from Britain and Australia.

Mr Miller dismissed criticism that the proposed bill would upend the American principle, embodied in a poem etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty, that “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are welcome in the nation. The New Colossus, the sonnet by Emma Lazarus, “was added later” and “is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty,” Mr Miller said.

The president has made cracking down on illegal immigration a hallmark of his administration and has tried to slash federal grants for cities that refuse to comply with federal efforts to detain and deport those living in the country illegally.

But he has also vowed to make changes to the legal immigration system, arguing that immigrants compete with Americans for much-needed jobs and drive wages down.

Most economists dispute the president's argument, noting that immigration in recent decades doesn't appear to have meaningfully hurt wages in the long run. Increased immigration is also associated with faster growth because the country is adding workers, so restricting the number of immigrants could slow the economy's potential to expand.

The bill's supporters, meanwhile, say it would make the U.S. more competitive, raise wages and create jobs.

Backers said the bill would sharply increase the proportion of green cards available to high-skilled workers and would not affect other high or low-skilled worker visa programs such as H1-B and H2-B visas. The Trump Organization has asked for dozens of H-2B visas for foreign workers at two of Trump's private clubs in Florida, including his Mar-a-Lago resort.

The White House said that only 1 in 15 immigrants comes to the US because of their skills, and the current system fails to place a priority on highly skilled immigrants.

But the Senate has largely ignored a previous version of the measure, with no other lawmaker signing on as a co-sponsor. Republican leaders have showed no inclination to vote on immigration this year, and Democrats quickly dismissed it.

"The bottom line is to cut immigration by half a million people, legal immigration, doesn't make much sense," said Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer, who called it a "nonstarter."

The bill would create a new points-based system for applicants seeking to become legal permanent residents, favoring those who can speak English, have high-paying job offers, can financially support themselves and offer skills that would contribute to the US economy. A little more than 1 million green cards were issued in 2015.

In a nod to his outreach to blue-collar workers during the campaign, Mr Trump said the measure would prevent new immigrants from collecting welfare for a period of time and help U.S. workers by reducing the number of unskilled laborers entering the US.

But the president is mischaracterising many of the immigrants coming to the United States as low-skilled and dependent on government aid.

The Pew Research Center said in 2015 that 41 per cent of immigrants who had arrived in the past five years held a college degree, much higher than the 30 per cent of non-immigrants in the United States. A stunning 18 per cent held an advanced degree, also much higher than the US average.

Mr Trump has long advocated for the changes and vowed to overhaul the legal immigration system "to serve the best interests of America and its workers."

Published: August 3, 2017 05:26 PM


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