WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump promoted a bill Wednesday that seeks to drastically reduce legal immigration, arguing that it will help restore American jobs, one of his key campaign promises.
Trump was accompanied by the bill's sponsors, Republican senators Tom Cotton (Ark.) and David Perdue (Ga.). They first introduced a version of the legislation, known as the RAISE Act, in February.
The bill seeks to move towards a merit-based approach, reshaping the entire immigration system. It would qualify immigrants through a point system that gives priority to those with better English-language skills, education levels and job skills. It would also cut in half the number of green cards granted each year, currently around 1 million.
“This would be the most significant reform to the immigration system in half a century,” said Trump. “It is a historic and very vital proposal.”
But even those in favor of the legislation believe it’s unlikely to pass. The bill is opposed by a number of Republicans.
"It’s just the first step,” Mark Krikorian, the director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told Univision. A think tank, CIS provides anti-immigration research to members of Congress to help them draft legislation.
"It will not be approved by this Congress because such a large change would require several legislative periods,” Krikorian said, adding that he believes the project will move the debate towards restricting immigration.
White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller predicted Wednesday that Trump's endorsement of a skills-based immigration system will gain strength in Congress as public debate heats up.
"The more that we, as a country, have a national conversation about what kind of immigration system we want and to whom we want to give green cards to, the more unstoppable the momentum for something like this becomes," Miller told reporters at the White House.
Purdue and Cotton have had some impact on the debate since they first presented the project in February. A March USA Today editorial advocated a reduction in the number of visas granted to relatives in exchange for an increase in the number of visas granted to more high-skilled immigrants.
But several Republican senators have expressed opposition to the first bill. Lindsey Graham and John McCain have argued that the economy benefits from foreign unskilled labor.
Graham has warned that the country needs policies that counter an aging population.
When you look at the 20-year demographics we're facing, we'll have an aging population and a declining workforce,” said the South Carolina senator, who has distinguished himself with his pro-immigrant stance.
Graham has co-sponsored the bipartisan Dream Act with Illinois Senator Richard J. Durbin, which would protect 800,000 undocumented dreamers currently covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order.
Arizona Senator John McCain has also opposed Cotton-Perdue's proposal, saying that it would stifle innovation. "I just don't agree with it" he said after the presentation of the first RAISE Act project in February.
"I think we need more Sergey Brins (Soviet-born Google founder) and people like that who were born outside of this country, came here, received an education and made enormous progress for all of mankind," he added.
Immigration hawks want to end a period of high immigration that began in the U.S. in the 1970s. Between the 1920s and 1970s the number of immigrants in the United States remained between 10 and 15 million (between 10 percent and 5 percent of the total U.S. population). Currently, the number of immigrants living in the United States is more than 40 million (almost 15 percent of the total population), according to the Migration Policy Institute.
For more than two decades the immigration debate has focused on protecting the border, which has made it impossible for millions of undocumented people to come out of the shadows. Trump has reignited a debate that had virtually disappeared since the mid-1990s, when an immigration reform proposal by Democratic congresswoman Barbara Jordan promoted severe cuts to immigration.
One of Jordan's goals was to reduce legal immigration by eliminating the right of citizens and legal immigrants to sponsor sibling visas. Former President Bill Clinton supported that goal, but then backed out.
According to Krikorian, the immigration debate is leaning in favor of restrictionists. Although immigration hawks don’t have strength in the current Congress, he believes the tide is in their favor.
"The underlying political forces that led to Trump's election will not disappear," says Krikorian. "The disconnection of working class Americans with the elites is still there, so whatever happens to Trump, the dynamics will continue."