President Donald Trump unveiled a much awaited plan to dramatically overhaul the nation’s immigration system Wednesday by placing people with certain skills at the front of the line – while at the same time pushing others way back.
The plan, championed in Congress by Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark, would mean a massive reduction in legal immigration and slash a key tenet of the American policy that helps keep families together.
The proposal would limit who could be sponsored for immigration to immediate family members. It would end the diversity visa lottery program and cap permanent resident status for refugees to 50,000 a year. There’s currently no such cap.
Getting the plan through Congress will be difficult. Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats, and the proposal will have to get 60 votes to cut off debate – a dim prospect.
Democrats and advocates will vigorously fight any effort to reduce who can be reunited with family members already here in the United States.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said the proposal appeals to extremist views and dishonors the U.S. tradition of being a nation of immigrants.
“Fresh off of their health care defeat, it appears Republicans refuse to learn any lessons from their mistakes,” he said, referring to the collapse of the GOP’s plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system.
“To actually get things done in Congress, you need to work in a bipartisan manner to address the country’s complex challenges – like our immigration system,” Menendez said.
Trump promoted his plan as a major step forward.
“This legislation will not only restore our competitive edge in the 21st century, but it will restore the sacred bonds of trust between America and its citizens,” he said Wednesday at the White House. “This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first.”
Stephen Miller, senior adviser to president Trump called the plan the biggest proposed change that would take place in a half century , saying it addressed the most important question when it comes to the U.S. immigration system – who gets a green card.
Miller said in addition to looking at whether applicants speak English, have a useful skill and can support themselves financially, the administration would look at whether they’re paid a high wage. That’s important, Miller said, because it will help end the practice of being able to seek out permanent residents to come in at a lower pay.
“So, all of a sudden, you’re putting upward pressure on wages instead of downward pressure, and you’re making it very hard to use immigrant labor to substitute for American workers,” Miller said.
While largely overshadowed by Trump’s promises to crack down on illegal immigration, the overhaul of the legal immigration system was hatched early in the 2016 election campaign, the White House said.
Officials pointed to Trump’s summer speech last year in Arizona where he outlined a 10-step policy that included building a wall, deporting “criminal aliens,” and establishing a new system that allows immigrants to enter this country based on “merit, skill and proficiency.”
Cotton said the United States accepts over a million immigrants a year, the equivalent of adding the population of Montana every single year or Arkansas every three years. The vast majority, he said, do not come because of their job skills.
“I can tell you nothing that we're going to do right now is more important than this in terms of growing our economy,” Perdue said. “The reason we need to do this is very simple: Our current system does not work.”
The idea behind the White House plan is to protect American workers. The administration says they are struggling to earn a middle-class wage because of the influx of cheaper foreign workers who depress wages.
Trump said those hit hardest have been the immigrants themselves, as well as minority workers. He said they all have to compete for jobs against the brand new arrivals.
“And it has not been fair to our people, to our citizens, to our workers,” Trump said.
Groups pushing the administration to tighten immigration enforcement applauded the president for recognizing the challenges Americans face.
Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a Washington, D.C.-based immigration-reduction organization said Trump is the first president he can remember since President Calvin Coolidge to address legal immigration during his campaign. Coolidge signed a major overhaul after World War I that limited immigration by country.
“Seeing the President standing with the bill's sponsors at the White House gives hope to the tens of millions of struggling Americans in stagnant jobs or outside the labor market altogether,” Beck said Wednesday.
The opposition, though, is mobilizing. Nearly 1,500 economists,including six Nobel Laureates and the chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, wrote a letter that maintains immigration grows the nation’s economy and creates American jobs.
“Immigration undoubtedly has economic costs as well, particularly for Americans in certain industries and Americans with lower levels of educational attainment. But the benefits that immigration brings to society far outweigh their costs, and smart immigration policy could better maximize the benefits of immigration while reducing the costs,” they wrote.