Trump, Senators Push Plan to Cut Legal Immigration

Trump, Senators Push Plan to Cut Legal Immigration
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President Trump and two Republican senators unveiled a proposal Wednesday to prioritize a skills-based approach to legal immigration while curbing the number of new immigrants into the United States by half in the next decade.

Trump’s support of the measure added immigration to a growing list of politically volatile issues he’s championing this summer to try to bolster his standing among working-class white conservatives. The measure is a revised version of a bill introduced by Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia originally released in February.

If enacted, the measure would have the effect of raising wages among American citizens, Trump said, and reduce federal spending on welfare and other benefits offered to low-skill immigrants and their families.

“I campaigned on creating a merit-based immigration system that protects U.S. workers and taxpayers,” the president said during what the White House called “American Dream Week.”

“American families … deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first,” he added.

Stephen Miller, a White House speechwriter and policy adviser to the president who previously promoted similar policy changes on Capitol Hill as an aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, called the immigration proposals “historic,” and said the restrictions are broadly supported by Americans.

“Over time you’ll see a massive public push for this,” Miller told reporters, noting that the green card restrictions demonstrated Trump’s “compassion for American workers.”

The legislation would make several changes to the legal immigration system: it would eliminate a program to allot visas to countries with low rates of immigration to the United States; cap the number of refugees granted permanent visas at 50,000 per year; and eliminate visa preference for family members of U.S. residents except for spouses and minor children.

It would also overhaul employment-based immigration, creating a point system to prioritize certain applicants. It would score on things such as speaking English, education level, job offers and age, funneling applicants into a pool from which those with the highest point scores would be selected for full immigration applications.

“We’re trying to reorient the people that we give the most precious thing on earth, which is the gift of American citizenship,” Cotton said during a press briefing Wednesday.

The legislation is unlikely to see the Senate floor, let alone become law. It received mixed reviews from senators in both parties Wednesday, and is unlikely to gain much traction in the coming months as the Senate departs for its annual August recess, then begins to take up an overhaul of the tax code this fall. But Cotton and Perdue both pitched the plan as a modest change to the overall immigration system meant to spur economic growth, and said they were still in the beginning stage of what they acknowledged would be a difficult path to enacting the legislation.

Rep. Lamar Smith plans to introduce a companion bill in the House, and Perdue and Cotton said they had spoken to House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte -- who praised the bill Wednesday -- about holding hearings in the lower chamber. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said he would need buy-in from liberals and conservatives for a modest immigration bill before moving it in his committee because long-held immigration priorities on both sides could bog it down.

“In order for us to move it, we’re going to have to have a commitment from people from the left that want to legalize everybody yesterday or people on the right that don’t want a single immigrant coming to the United States,” Grassley said.

One Senate GOP aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics, predicted the legislation wouldn’t get more than 20 Republican votes “on its best day” and that it would not be brought to the floor. Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip and chairman of a key Judiciary immigration subcommittee, said the proposal deserved “serious consideration” but said it was “undetermined” whether he would hold a hearing on it this year. He said a focus on border security and internal immigration enforcement would be a priority.

Meanwhile, some Republicans immediately bashed the proposal. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was part of the Gang of Eight that produced comprehensive immigration reform that passed the Senate in 2013, said the legislation would be “devastating” to his state’s economy.

“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,” Graham said in a statement. “After dealing with this issue for more than a decade, I know that when you restrict legal labor to employers it incentivizes cheating.”

Cotton fired back at Graham during a press briefing later in the afternoon: “When Senator Graham reads the bill and understands what it does, I think he may think better of his statement today,” Cotton said.

Some Republicans questioned the logic of unveiling legislation on such a divisive issue when the party is already struggling for cohesion, reeling from its failure to pass an Obamacare repeal measure last month.

Tax reform should be more unifying and infrastructure should be more unifying,” said Sen. John Thune, a member of GOP leadership, when asked about unveiling the immigration bill at this point.

Other examples of conservative policy changes the president espoused just as lawmakers were traveling home for August included a ban on transgender people serving in the military, and a determination that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not prohibit discrimination against gay and bisexual employees. He also sparked criticism among Democrats and even some members of his party by encouraging a new presidential commission to hunt for evidence of voter fraud in the states.

Although GOP lawmakers are reluctant to tackle comprehensive immigration reform before the midterm elections next year, Trump’s advocacy for a wall along the border with Mexico and his celebration of immigration enforcement, travel bans and denying federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities plays well with his base. House Republicans voted for $1.6 billion in funding for the wall last month, though that is likely to spark a broader fight when Congress returns in the fall.

Republicans on Capitol Hill as well as business and advocacy groups urged the president this week to lend his bully pulpit this summer to the cause of enacting tax reform this year. They understand that health care lingers as unfinished business, together with passing a budget, lifting the debt ceiling, and perhaps financing infrastructure investments.

In other words, the president is known to juggle a lot of topics, sometimes in the same paragraph. Trump will hold a rally in Huntington, W.V., Thursday evening, and is expected to travel to Midwest and Rust Belt states during August. He plans to spend several weeks in Bedminster, N.J., on vacation with his family. 

Trump’s spokeswoman denied that her boss had rejected suggestions from allies for message discipline to try to help make tax reform a priority.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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