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Trump endorses bill that would slash legal immigration

WASHINGTON — President Trump backed a sweeping plan Wednesday to halve legal immigration to the United States, flanked by the two Republican senators who crafted the bill.

“As a candidate I campaigned on creating a merit-based immigration system,” Trump said. He added that the legislation, called the RAISE Act, would be the “most significant reform to our immigration system in half a century.”

The president said that the bill shows “compassion” to struggling American families and that it would “give American workers a pay raise by reducing unskilled immigration.”

Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., first floated a version of the bill back in February. They proposed cutting the number of green cards given to family members of U.S. citizens by half and eliminating the annual visa “diversity” lottery that gives 50,000 green cards to people in nations without significant immigration levels to the U.S.

The bill would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their minor children and spouses for legal status, but not their parents, adult children or siblings. (Some exceptions would be made for sick older parents.) That would likely reduce the number of new legal immigrants to the United States per year from roughly 1 million to 500,000.

While the senators and Trump are billing the legislation as a way to make the U.S. immigration system more based upon skills and merit, the bill does not route any of the eliminated family green cards into the merit system. In designing the legislation, Perdue said lawmakers were inspired by the merit-based immigration systems of Canada and other developed countries. But Canada, which is nearly 10 times smaller than the United States, admitted more jobs-based permanent residents in 2015 than the United States would under this Trump-backed bill. Asked by Yahoo News about this gap, Perdue said his bill is just the “first step” to fixing the immigration system and he would consider increasing the number of skills-based green cards later.

President Trump speaks about immigration at the White House on Wednesday. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)
President Trump speaks about immigration at the White House on Wednesday. (Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The revamped bill Trump helped unveil Wednesday goes a step further than the original, transferring the 140,000 employer-based green cards currently given out per year to a points-based system that gives applicants extra credit for language skills, for holding advanced degrees, and other factors. The revised bill also allows for a one-year grace period for the millions of family-based green card applicants who have been waiting for years, and in some cases more than a decade, to immigrate. Most of the people who have been waiting in line for years will still see their petitions erased under the legislation, however, but would be allotted extra points if they applied for a skills-based visa.

“The reforms in the RAISE Act will help ensure that newcomers to our wonderful country will be assimilated [and] will succeed,” Trump said.

Cotton said the current immigration system is an “obsolete disaster” and needs to be fixed.

Later on, White House aide Stephen Miller explained the legislation to reporters at the White House briefing. In response to a question, Miller said Trump would not stop bringing over foreign workers to staff his businesses to set an “example,” because those workers do not receive green cards, but rather visas that do not lead to citizenship. He then got into an extended back and forth with CNN reporter Jim Acosta about the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty and whether a merit-based system was in line with American values.

Groups that favor lowering legal and illegal immigration levels praised Trump for endorsing the plan. “Seeing the president standing with the bill’s sponsors at the White House gives hopes to tens of millions of struggling Americans in stagnant jobs or outside the labor market altogether,” said NumbersUSA president Roy Beck in a statement.

The bill faces a very steep climb in the Senate, where nearly all the Democrats and several Republicans have backed paths to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Also, many Republicans see a need for robust legal immigration in order to keep the economy and U.S. population growing. The bill contains no hint of compromise for the other side — neither a modest increase in employment-based visas nor a small-scale legalization.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted Wednesday afternoon that the legislation would devastate South Carolina’s economy by cutting agricultural and tourism workers. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he’d be supportive of having “hearings” on the issue.

And pro-immigration groups accused Trump of backing a proposal that targets predominantly nonwhite U.S. citizens who want to sponsor their family members for citizenship. “Let’s call it as we see it: This is a white nationalist agenda masquerading as a bill about skill levels,” said Frank Sharry, the director of the America’s Voice immigrant advocacy group. “Welcome to the Trump era.”

Cotton says the bill would return legal immigration to historical levels, when immigrants made up a smaller share of the U.S. population than they do now. Net immigration right now equals about 0.3 percent of the U.S. population annually — lower than the 0.4 percent yearly average since 1790. But the foreign-born population overall is currently at 13 percent — higher than it’s been in recent decades and approaching America’s record high of 14.8 percent set in 1890, according to the Pew Research Center.

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