Trump backs ‘merit-based’ visa bill that could halve legal immigration

President Donald Trump threw his support behind a bill sponsored by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, left, and David Perdue of Georgia, that could cut legal immigration in half while setting up a merit-based immigration system. (Photo courtesy

Sanaa Abrar, 25, poses at an unrelated rally outside the White House, where the president announced his support for legislation to cut immigration to the U.S. in half, a bill she said would affect “people who look like my family.” (Photo by Megan Janetsky/Cronkite News)

In addition to cutting the number of “green cards” issued from around 1 million to 500,000, the bill backed by the president would give priority to high-skilled, highly educated, English-speaking immigrants, among other changes. (Photo by Li Tsin Soon/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump threw his support behind a bill Wednesday that would slash immigration into the United States and create a merit-based system favoring those who speak English, have higher education and high-paying job offers.

The bill would cut immigration in half from the current 1 million green cards granted annually and would mark what Trump called “the most significant reform to our immigration system in half a century.”

But critics called it just another move “in line with the strategy of the Trump administration to come after immigrants as a whole,” and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, predicted that it was not likely to go far in the Senate as currently drafted.

Trump said the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment, or RAISE, Act would protect American workers by limiting the number of low-skilled immigrants who come to this country and compete for jobs, driving down wages in the process.

“It will restore the sacred bonds of trust between America and its citizens,” Trump said, according to a White House transcript of the event. “This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first.”

If passed, the bill would also cut back on visas given to extended family members of U.S. residents, eliminate the diversity visa lottery system, limit permanent resident status for refugees and limit the number of low-skilled workers entering this country.

Trump said that by limiting admission to a highly skilled workers, the bill would “help ensure that newcomers to our wonderful country will be assimilated.”

But far from bringing the country together, critics said it would just add “another layer of anti-immigrant sentiment.”

-Cronkite News video by Alex Valdez

As Trump was speaking inside the White House, Pakistani immigrant Sanaa Abrar was outside Wednesday morning to take part in an unrelated rally for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the deferred deportation program for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Abrar said the bill “struck a chord” with her.

Abrar, 25, was 3 months old when her mother brought her to the U.S. to join her father while he pursued a medical degree on an H1-B visa. Now a U.S. citizen and immigration advocate in D.C., she said she fears what the bill could mean for future immigrants.

“This is affecting directly the people who resemble my family,” Abrar said. “The people who come here for a better life, the people who work so hard to go through all the hoops that are in place with the immigration system here – just to come to the United States.”

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, Flake said lawmakers have considered merit-based immigration before, but that the level of cuts envisioned in the bill would be “a big blow to our economy.”

“You can’t cut legal immigration in half and expect that we’re going to address the economic needs that we have,” Flake said, adding
that he does not think the bill “would receive much support around here.”

The bill was introduced by Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and David Perdue, R-Georgia, in February but got little traction before the president weighed in.

-Cronkite News graphic by Joe Gilmore

“Cotton has proposed the idea before and a lot of us didn’t think it was go far, but who knows now?” said Ruben Reyes, Arizona chapter chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Now that the bill has the president’s backing, Reyes said, his group plans to have a “more robust” conversation about it.

But former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio welcomed the president’s actions, saying “our country has a right to not let everybody come in.”

“I applaud the president for going after a subject that can be very controversial. But what else is new?” Arpaio said Wednesday. “He’s doing what’s good for the country and what’s good for the economy. Why does it take 50 years to change this?”

Arpaio – convicted Monday of criminal contempt for defying a judge’s order to have his deputies stop arresting drivers solely on suspicion they might be undocumented – said he hopes Congress backs the legislation.

But Tomas Robles, executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, said that “for Arizona in particular, it (the bill) would just be another layer of anti-immigrant sentiment.”

“Trump is saying, ‘We’re willing to take your labor because it’s highly skilled, but we’re not willing to take everything that comes with you as an individual, as a human being,'” Robles said.

– Cronkite News reporter J.T. Lain contributed to this report.