By PETER BAKER AUG. 2, 2017, New York Times [Original article contains links.]
WASHINGTON — President Trump embraced a proposal on Wednesday to slash
legal immigration to the United States in half within a decade by sharply curtailing
the ability of American citizens and legal residents to bring family members into the
The plan would enact the most far-reaching changes to the system of legal
immigration in decades and represents the president’s latest effort to stem the flow
of newcomers to the United States. Since taking office, he has barred many visitors
from select Muslim-majority countries, limited the influx of refugees, increased
immigration arrests and pressed to build a wall along the southern border.
In asking Congress to curb legal immigration, Mr. Trump intensified a debate
about national identity, economic growth, worker fairness and American values that
animated his campaign last year. Critics said the proposal would undercut the
fundamental vision of the United States as a haven for the poor and huddled masses,
while the president and his allies said the country had taken in too many low-skilled
immigrants for too long to the detriment of American workers.
“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,” Mr.
Trump said at a White House event alongside two Republican senators sponsoring
the bill. “This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American
families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts
In throwing his weight behind a bill, Mr. Trump added one more long-odds
priority to a legislative agenda already packed with them in the wake of the defeat of
legislation to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s health care program. The
president has already vowed to overhaul the tax code and rebuild the nation’s roads,
airports and other infrastructure.
But by endorsing legal immigration cuts, a move he has long supported, Mr. Trump
returned to a theme that has defined his short political career and excites his
conservative base at a time when his poll numbers continue to sink. Just 33 percent
of Americans approved of his performance in the latest Quinnipiac University
survey, the lowest rating of his presidency, and down from 40 percent a month ago.
Democrats and some Republicans quickly criticized the move. “Instead of
catching criminals, Trump wants to tear apart communities and punish immigrant
families that are making valuable contributions to our economy,” said Tom Perez,
the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “That’s not what America
The bill, sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of
Georgia, would institute a merit-based system to determine who is admitted to the
country and granted legal residency green cards, favoring applicants based on skills,
education and language ability rather than relations with people already here. The
proposal revives an idea included in broader immigration legislation supported by
President George W. Bush that died in 2007.
More than one million people are granted legal residency each year, and the
proposal would reduce that by 41 percent in its first year and 50 percent by its 10th
year, according to projections cited by its sponsors. The reductions would come
largely from those brought in through family connections. The number of
immigrants granted legal residency on the basis of job skills, about 140,000, would
remain roughly the same.
Under the current system, most legal immigrants are admitted to the United
States based on family ties. American citizens can sponsor spouses, parents and
minor children for an unrestricted number of visas, while siblings and adult children
are given preferences for a limited number of visas available to them. Legal
permanent residents holding green cards can also sponsor spouses and children.
In 2014, 64 percent of immigrants admitted with legal residency were
immediate relatives of American citizens or sponsored by family members. Just 15
percent entered through employment-based preferences, according to the Migration
Policy Institute, an independent research organization. But that does not mean that
those who came in on family ties were necessarily low skilled or uneducated.
The legislation would award points based on education, ability to speak English,
high-paying job offers, age, record of achievement and entrepreneurial initiative. But
while it would still allow spouses and minor children of Americans and legal
residents to come in, it would eliminate preferences for other relatives, like siblings
and adult children. The bill would create a renewable temporary visa for older-adult
parents who come for caretaking purposes.
The legislation would limit refugees offered permanent residency to 50,000 a
year and eliminate a diversity visa lottery that the sponsors said does not promote
diversity. The senators said their bill was meant to emulate systems in Canada and
The projections cited by the sponsors said legal immigration would decrease to
637,960 after a year and to 539,958 after a decade.
“Our current system does not work,” Mr. Perdue said. “It keeps America from
being competitive and it does not meet the needs of our economy today.”
Mr. Cotton said low-skilled immigrants pushed down wages for those who
worked with their hands. “For some people, they may think that that’s a symbol of
America’s virtue and generosity,” he said. “I think it’s a symbol that we’re not
committed to working-class Americans, and we need to change that.”
But Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, noted that
agriculture and tourism were his state’s top two industries. “If this proposal were to
become law, it would be devastating to our state’s economy, which relies on this
immigrant work force,” he said. “Hotels, restaurants, golf courses and farmers,” he
added, “will tell you this proposal to cut legal immigration in half would put their
business in peril.”
Cutting legal immigration would make it harder for Mr. Trump to reach the
stronger economic growth that he has promised. Bringing in more workers,
especially during a time of low unemployment, increases the size of an economy.
Critics said the plan would result in labor shortages, especially in lower-wage jobs
that many Americans do not want.
The National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group, said the country was
already facing a work force gap of 7.5 million jobs by 2020. “Cutting legal
immigration for the sake of cutting immigration would cause irreparable harm to the
American worker and their family,” said Ali Noorani, the group’s executive director.
Surveys show most Americans believe legal immigration benefits the country. In
a Gallup poll in January, 41 percent of Americans were satisfied with the overall level
of immigration, 11 percentage points higher than the year before and the highest
since the question was first asked in 2001. Still, 53 percent of Americans remained
The plan endorsed by Mr. Trump generated a fiery exchange at the White House
briefing when Stephen Miller, the president’s policy adviser and a longtime advocate
of immigration limits, defended the proposal. Pressed for statistics to back up claims
that immigration was costing Americans jobs, he cited several studies that have been
debated by experts.
“But let’s also use common sense here, folks,” Mr. Miller said. “At the end of the
day, why do special interests want to bring in more low-skill workers?”
He rejected the argument that immigration policy should also be based on
compassion. “Maybe it’s time we had compassion for American workers,” he said.
When a reporter read him some of the words from the Statue of Liberty — “Give
me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — Mr.
Miller dismissed them. “The poem that you’re referring to was added later,” he said.
“It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
He noted that in 1970, the United States allowed in only a third as many legal
immigrants as it now does: “Was that violating or not violating the Statue of Liberty
law of the land?”
Correction: August 2, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated part of President Trump’s effort to stem the
flow of immigrants into the United States. He has increased immigration arrests, not