President Donald Trump endorsed an immigration bill that would cut legal immigration by 50 percent over the next decade and overhaul the current system to prevent “low-skilled” immigrants from entering the country.
Speaking from the White House’s Roosevelt Room on Wednesday, Trump called the RAISE Act the most “significant reform of our immigration system in half a century,” and said it would replace “our low-skill system with a new points system.”
Under the bill, green card applicants would earn “points” based on English skills, their ability to support themselves financially, job offers, and skill set. Trump argued that these tests would help working-class Americans who feel wage competition with low-skilled immigrants. The bill faces long odds: Eight Democrats in the Senate would have to vote “yes” for it to pass.
The plan’s authors, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, also cast their plan as a defense of working-class Americans.
“Only 1 in 15 out of a million new immigrants [each year] come here because of their job skills and their ability to succeed in this economy,” Cotton said, speaking at the presidential podium after Trump spoke. “For some people, they may think that’s a symbol of America’s virtue and generosity. I think it’s a symbol that we’re not committed to working-class Americans.”
Cotton’s embrace of Trump’s “America First” ethos was also an implicit rebuttal of the famous Emma Lazarus poem etched on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”), which Democratic lawmakers have frequently quoted in the Trump era.
The proposed bill would also limit the number of refugees admitted to the United States to 50,000 per year. There are currently 22.5 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, and over half are under 18.
While the bill’s immediate chances of passage are slim, the president’s embrace of a plan to reduce legal immigration marks a dramatic shift from the immigration reform efforts of recent decades. President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants and George W. Bush attempted to pass a bipartisan immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship to the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. A similar effort by Barack Obama in 2013 passed the Senate 68-32 with support from both parties before stalling out in the House.
In an interview with VICE News, Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California, who immigrated to America from Taiwan, voiced his opposition to the bill. “To restrict legal immigration will make America weaker,” Lieu said. “We never would have made it to this country if this bill had been law, because my parents weren’t financially stable nor did they speak English well.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a leading supporter of the Bush and Obama immigration reform efforts, came out against Trump’s proposal on Wednesday. He said he supported merit-based immigration but opposed the cutting of legal immigration levels. “I fear this proposal will not only hurt our agriculture, tourism, and service economy in South Carolina, it incentivizes more illegal immigration as positions go unfilled,” he said in a statement.
The bill is yet another sign of the more nativist approach to immigration that’s been steadily gaining ground on the right for the past decade. Its emergence helped fuel Trump’s candidacy as he took the most hard-line immigration stance in the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said in the spring 2016 speech announcing his presidential bid. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems [to] us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
In American history, the pendulum of immigration policy has repeatedly swung between welcoming immigrants and shunning them. Before the Immigration and Naturalization Act passed in 1965 — which largely remains in place to this day –the immigration system more closely resembled what Trump is proposing. The Immigration Act of 1924 instituted “literacy tests” and banned all immigration from an “Asiatic Barred Zone” — basically every Asian country except Japan and the Philippines — because politicians claimed Asians could not successfully integrate in America.
While this particular bill may not pass, it could very well foreshadow another swing of the pendulum.