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.