When President Trump publicly backed a bill to curb legal immigration, he placed a decades-old idea—that until now had been largely sidelined—back into the mainstream.
Earlier this month, Trump threw his weight behind a modified version of the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, a measure first introduced by Republican Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue in February that would cut legal immigration to the United States by 50 percent over a decade. “Finally, the reforms in the RAISE Act will help ensure that newcomers to our wonderful country will be assimilated, will succeed, and will achieve the American Dream,” Trump said in an announcement from the White House.
Immigration-restrictionist groups immediately praised Trump’s endorsement. “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,” said Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA, in a statement. “President Trump is to be praised for moving beyond the easy issue of enforcement,” wrote Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, in The National Interest.
Cotton and Perdue’s bill targets the family reunification component of the 1965 Immigration Act by giving visa preference only to immediate family and eliminating the diversity visa lottery, which allots a certain number of visas to countries “with historically low rates of immigration to the United States.” It also proposes a merit-based immigration system, which gives preference to highly-skilled and educated individuals. After 10 years, the measure projects, immigration levels would drop to nearly 540,000 a year, a 50 percent drop from the current rate.
Trump, who made cracking down on immigration a cornerstone of his campaign, has presented immigration restrictionists with the best opportunity to reduce legal immigration in a generation. The RAISE Act itself is reminiscent of recommendations made in the 1990s to overhaul the U.S. immigration system in order to reduce the number of immigrants in the United States.
White House aides have been working with the two Republican senators on the legislation, as has Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, a key player during attempts to change the legal immigration system in the 1990s. “I have been in discussions with Members of Congress and the Administration since President Trump took office in January,” Smith told me in an email. “I worked with Senators Cotton and [Perdue] in crafting the RAISE Act.”
By the 1990s, the United States was reckoning with a significant uptick of immigrants. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, a sweeping bill that opened the doors to immigrants from around the world, and a 1986 law that granted citizenship to undocumented immigrants in the United States, both contributed to an influx in the foreign-born American population. Then, in 1990, George H.W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which increased the number of legal immigrants allowed entry to the United States. Notably, the legislation also set up the Commission on Legal Immigration Reform to examine U.S. policies. Barbara Jordan, a former Democratic congresswoman from Texas, headed the panel.
“The whole commission was not about reducing immigration per se. It was about what is the right level of immigration, so that we’re not disproportionally harming America’s most vulnerable workers,” said Rosemary Jenks, the director of government relations at NumbersUSA.
In 1995, the panel recommended cutting legal immigration by one-third, so that the U.S. would allow in 700,000 a year and later, 550,000 immigrants a year—a major drop from the current level at the time, 830,000 a year. The commission suggested limiting preferences for the extended family of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who could previously apply for a visa under the 1965 Immigration Act, and basing entry entry on job skills.
To some degree, the recommendations were reflective of the national discourse at the time, which focused on how foreign-born workers were affecting the economy. On the one end, the labor movement was opposed to immigration, seeing it as a disadvantage to native-born workers, while on the other, corporations expressed support for amnesty because they employed skilled immigrants. “There were a lot of undocumented immigrants in the United States who had overstayed their visas and who in fact [were] holding very responsible jobs in science, technology, who were entrepreneurial, and moreover, better-educated class of immigrant, which was a real plus for the high-tech firms,” said Alan Kraut, a history professor at American University.
This put the Democratic Party, which has by and large been pro-immigration and pro-labor, in a bind. “In Clinton’s case, he felt he could shoot up the middle and retain loyalty within the American labor movement and also loyalty on the part of the various immigration groups because after all, where else could they turn,” Kraut said. But there was another shift happening in the Democratic Party—the demographic change sparked by the 1965 law was altering the party’s base. In 1992, for example, 76 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters were non-Hispanic whites compared to 57 percent today, according to the Pew Research Center.
The proposals, and the Clinton administration’s embrace of it, received pushback from immigrant advocacy groups and some Republicans, who argued that reducing legal immigration would in fact hinder the economy. “Most immigrants today are not sponges off the system; they are hard-working, and they carry with them that work ethic that made America great,” then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Republican from Texas, told his constituents.
Still, the commission’s findings had reinforced Smith’s proposals on legal immigration, Jenks said. Smith introduced legislation that sought to place greater emphasis on skills and scrap the diversity visa program, similar to what the RAISE Act aims to do today. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Al Simpson introduced a piece of legislation that, like Smith’s, aimed to crackdown on illegal immigration and curb legal immigration. In the end, provisions on legal immigration failed to pass in both chambers—leaving the Clinton administration with a choice about whether to support new restrictions on illegal immigration.
“The administration told the Congress that the president would veto a bill that included the legal immigration reductions,” said Doris Meissner, the former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. “They were left with a dilemma—the Congress—of whether they wanted to try to pass a bill that had the legal immigration reductions in it and face the possibility of a presidential veto or whether they were going to do what was called ‘split the bill’ and deal with just illegal immigration—and that’s what they decided to do because the administration was willing to cooperate with that.”
The pressures from outside groups might have swayed the president’s decision, Meissner said. The New York Times reported at the time that “the proposals drew criticism from a wide range of business, ethnic and religious groups.” Kraut added: “Clinton understood, as the Democrats understood that came before them, that you must have the ethnic vote. And for him, the growing strength of the Latino vote and the growing strength of the Asian vote and the growing strength of other groups like that necessitated that he have a reasonably pro-immigration stance.”
Since then, attempts to reform the U.S. immigration system have faltered in the face of heated political opposition to the legalization of undocumented immigrants. George W. Bush’s immigration reform bill in 2007 would have provided legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., set up a new guest-worker program, and included a merit-based system. It died in the Democratic-controlled Senate due to opposition from the right and left. Barack Obama, who was elected in 2008 on a promise to reform the immigration system, took his pass in 2013: A group of senators, dubbed the Gang of Eight, drafted bipartisan legislation that included enforcement measures and offered a pathway to citizenship, but was killed in the Republican-controlled House. Largely left out of the national dialogue were proposals to reduce legal immigration.
Cotton and Perdue’s bill reintroduces the recommendations made by the Commission on Immigration Reform and later adopted by Smith in his legislation. “The commission made the recommendation, as we are today, of admitting individuals with the education, skills and abilities that we need in America, and placing less of an emphasis on extended family members,” Smith said in an email. “These reforms make sure that our immigration policies protect hard-working Americans.” He added: “If President Clinton hadn’t switched his position several weeks before the 1996 bill, we would have accomplished legal immigration reform then.”
The White House is playing a significant role in thrusting the proposal into the mainstream. On the day that Trump backed the legislation, top White House adviser Stephen Miller addressed the proposed changes at a White House briefing. “The effect of this, switching to a skills-based system and ending unfettered chain migration, would be, over time, you would cut net migration in half, which polling shows is supported overwhelmingly by the American people in very large numbers,” he said. The White House has since pushed out a series of releases highlighting praise for the RAISE Act.
“The very fact that it got this kind of high-profile presidential treatment means that this is an issue that’s not going away,” Krikorian told me.
Any changes to legal immigration could have a profound impact on the demographic makeup of the country. According to the Department of Homeland Security, roughly two-thirds of immigrants were given green cards because of family connections in the United States in fiscal year 2017—and approximately 13 percent “obtained status under an employment-based preference category.” As Tom Gjelten, the author of A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story, wrote in The Atlantic: “The key lesson of the 1965 reforms is that social engineering through the adjustment of immigration policy is no simple matter—and almost any such effort will produce dramatic, unintended consequences.” That could be the case in transitioning over to a point system that prioritizes high-skilled immigrants.
Critics of the merit-based system argue that it could hinder the economy by hurting industries that rely on low-skilled immigrant labor, while some economists say higher-skilled immigrants could contribute more to the economy.
It’s not clear if and when the bill would progress through Congress. For one, lawmakers plan on taking up tax reform next. And a bill would need 60 votes in the Senate to advance, meaning it’d have to receive some Democratic support. There’s also no indication that leadership plans on taking it up; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been mum on the legislation. Smith, for his part, will introduce a companion bill in the House in September. “My bill will have the same contours as the Senate bill, but we haven’t finalized every word,” he told me.
Just the fact that the proposals have picked up steam again is reassuring for some. “We had a small window in the mid-1990s because of Barbara Jordan. It was OK to talk about immigration and reducing it and then that window closed and now we have an opportunity to have a serious public debate,” Jenks said. There’s no promise, however, that its fate this time around will be any different.