President Donald Trump gave his seal of approval Wednesday to Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s legislation that would halve legal immigration levels, providing a notable boost to a contentious proposal that has yet to advance on Capitol Hill.
Perdue and Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas flanked Trump during a brief event in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, where the commander in chief proclaimed the legislation would “reduce poverty, increase wages and save taxpayers billions and billions of dollars.”
“Crucially, the green card reforms in the (bill) will give American workers a pay raise by reducing unskilled immigration,” Trump told reporters.
Trump was touting a bill his staff developed with Perdue and Cotton over the past few months, which is an expanded version of legislation the two Republican senators initially unveiled in February.
The updated measure would institute a “merit-based” points system similar to the process used in Canada and Australia for foreigners seeking to permanently move to the U.S. for work.
The system would cap employment-based visas at 140,000 a year and prioritize would-be migrants who speak English, are well-educated and possess specific skill sets that U.S. employers cannot find easily in America.
The goal, according to Perdue’s office, is to make sure U.S. businesses look outside the country only for high-skilled workers they can’t find in the U.S., while adding incentives to employ American workers, particularly for jobs that require less education.
“We can all agree the goals of our nation’s immigration system should be to protect the interests of working Americans, including immigrants, and to welcome talented individuals who come here legally and want to work and make a better life for themselves,” Perdue said. “Our current system makes it virtually impossible for them to do that.”
The new effort also keeps most of Perdue and Cotton’s original proposals intact, including cutting the number of refugees allowed into the country by roughly half to 50,000 a year. It would also limit the types of family members legal residents can bring to the U.S. Under their proposal, spouses, dependent children and parents would be given preference, but not adult children or extended family.
In other words, the legislation would codify many of Trump’s key campaign promises.
The criticism was quick to arrive from immigrant and refugee advocacy groups.
“It is a little presumptuous to assume that refugees are not contributing economically once they arrive,” said J.D. McCrary, the executive director of the Atlanta-based refugee resettlement group the International Rescue Committee.
Refugees already must prove they are being persecuted before they can enter the country, McCrary said, and Perdue’s bill would add even more hurdles.
“It would be unfortunate for a refugee who is facing a well-founded fear of persecution whose life may very well be on the line,” he said.
Paedia Mixon, the CEO of the Atlanta-based refugee resettlement group New American Pathways, said her organization was “deeply concerned” about the proposal, particularly the components limiting refugees and the kinds of family members who can be united with their relatives already in the U.S.
“Moving to a purely merit-based system has less focus on reunifying families, which is really important to help people become integrated into community and have a good and successful life,” she said.
Backers of the bill hope Trump’s support will help increase its odds of passage in the Senate, where Republican leaders so far have not indicated any interest in advancing the proposal.
Roy Beck, the president of the group NumbersUSA, which advocates for reducing immigration levels, said the bill doesn’t go far enough but still represents a positive step forward. He said Trump’s support means a great deal.
“It’s very important. For the first time since Barbara Jordan came out with recommendations, we’ve got assurances that if the bill got to the president’s desk, the president wouldn’t veto it,” he said, referring to the Texas Democratic congresswoman who led the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in the mid-1990s and advocated for sharply restricting immigration levels.
Democrats rejected Cotton and Perdue’s first effort outright. And while there is some consensus in the Republican Party when it comes to illegal immigration, the legal side is seen as more controversial since many U.S. businesses rely on foreign workers being able to settle in the U.S.
South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was part of the Senate’s “gang of eight” working group on immigration in 2013, denounced Perdue’s proposal Wednesday on Twitter.
“I’ve always supported merit-based immigration,” he said. “I think we should always want to attract the best and brightest to the United States … Unfortunately other part of proposal reduces legal immigration by half including many immigrants who work legally in Ag, tourism, & service.”
Graham said passing the proposal would be “devastating” to the South Carolina economy, which relies on the economic activity generated by the agriculture and tourism industries.
Perdue disagreed with his critics’ assessments, saying his bill has wide appeal.
“Why wouldn’t you support this?” he told reporters. “It’s pro-growth, it’s pro-worker. It’s actually been proven to work. This is not an experiment.”