President Trump and his Senate allies are now presenting their goal for immigration reform as increasing the number of high-skilled immigrants allowed into the United States. But the immigration legislation from Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia that Trump has endorsed would almost certainly reduce the total number of high-skilled immigrants.
That stark contradiction has been overshadowed by reports that Trump used a vulgarity to describe immigrants from Africa and Haiti during a private White House meeting last week—and by the widely disputed accusation from Cotton and Perdue, who attended, that their colleague Dick Durbin lied when he recounted the president’s language.
But by trumpeting high-skilled immigration, Trump, Cotton, and Perdue are also obscuring the most significant impact of their proposal: a 50 percent cut in legal immigration. Within that smaller pool of immigrants, high-skilled workers could very well comprise a larger share than they do now. But if that shift were to happen, it would only be because immigration levels would fall even faster for those who are lower-skilled.
“They are not talking about immigrating 1 million scientists and engineers,” said Stuart Anderson, the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy and a former immigration aide to two Republican senators. “It’s completely untrue that it would bring in more skilled immigrants. The purpose of this from the beginning has been to cut legal immigration.”
In 2016, the United States admitted nearly 1.2 million legal immigrants. They mostly fall into four big categories: those who are sponsored by employers (about 140,000 annually); refugees and asylum seekers (160,000); those admitted through a diversity lottery (around 50,000); and the relatives of American citizens and legal permanent residents (about 800,000).
The Cotton and Perdue bill that Trump has embraced would limit refugee admissions to 50,000 annually, terminate the diversity lottery, and severely reduce family-based immigration. U.S. citizens could still sponsor spouses and minor children in unlimited numbers, though the age limit for eligible children would be lowered. And legal permanent residents could sponsor those relatives up to an annual cap. But almost all other forms of family reunification—or “chain migration,” as conservatives call it—would be eliminated: Neither citizens nor permanent residents could sponsor their adult children or siblings. The only exception would be the parents of citizens, who would be allowed to enter temporarily—typically so their kids could care for them—but not obtain citizenship.
But despite its supporters’ rhetoric, the Cotton-Perdue bill would not increase the 140,000 visas available for employment-based immigration. Instead, it would shift those slots out of the current framework—where specific employers sponsor specific workers—and into a new points system, which ranks prospective immigrants on such qualities as their education and English proficiency. The sponsors’ claim that the bill would increase skilled immigration is based almost entirely on the possibility that this point-based approach would admit more highly educated immigrants than the existing employer system.
Experts don’t all agree it would. But even if it did, the effect would be modest. The 140,000 employment slots include workers’ immediate families. On average, that means only about 70,000 workers are admitted through this category. Increasing the share of workers with a college degree might enlarge the number of skilled immigrants the United States admits by a few thousand. But any such gain likely would be overwhelmed by the number of skilled immigrants the bill would exclude by retrenching other categories, especially family and diversity immigration. Those two categories alone could face a combined reduction approaching 300,000 in the bill’s first year.
The Migration Policy Institute has calculated that nearly half of all immigrants admitted in the past five years have a college degree. Even if the numbers are lower for family members or diversity participants—that precise data isn’t available—the likelihood is that the bill would exclude many more college graduates by shutting those doors than it opens on the employment side.
“If you are thinking about the number of college graduates who would be getting green cards each year, that number would go down,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at MPI.
The Trump administration has also indicated it is considering administrative changes that would make it harder for high-skilled immigrants to remain in the United States under the tech-focused H-1B program, and harder for foreign students to work in the country temporarily after graduation. “Their entire regulatory agenda is to have fewer high-skilled people work in the U.S., especially in the long term,” Anderson said.
The bipartisan immigration-reform plan the Senate approved in 2013 offers a revealing contrast to the Trump agenda. That bill—which passed with support from every Senate Democrat and 14 Senate Republicans before House Republicans killed it—eliminated three categories of non-employment immigration: siblings, married adult children, and the diversity lottery. But it shifted the visas it eliminated into a new merit-based system that supplemented the employer-sponsorship track, rather than replacing it as Cotton and Perdue’s bill would. That meant that, unlike the new legislation, the 2013 Senate plan actually would have admitted more high-skilled immigrants.
Cotton has signaled he might agree to transfer some of the family-based slots he would eliminate into skills-based immigration. But as long as he’s attempting to slash overall legal-immigration levels—at a time when the country will need more workers to fund Social Security and Medicare for its growing senior population—he’s unlikely to find many takers among Democrats or even centrist Republicans. The 2013 precedent shows there’s a path to bipartisan agreement on shifting the balance of new immigrants more toward those with high skills—but not if the real goal remains locking out as many future immigrants as possible.