By Seung Min Kim
Politico – Overlooked in Donald Trump’s campaign crusade against illegal immigration was his vow to crack down on legal immigration, too.
The conservative rising star is poised to step into the role being vacated in the chamber by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has long preached the economic virtues of restricting legal immigration in favor of U.S. citizens — a view disputed by business-friendly Republicans who have pushed for a more expansionist immigration policy. Sessions is set to be confirmed as attorney general this week.
“Donald Trump was the only one who saw that most Americans don’t like our current immigration system,” Cotton said in an interview with POLITICO on Monday. “This is just the area of politics where I think leaders and elites are most disconnected from the people. Not just Republicans but in both parties, in business, in the media, in the academy, culture and so forth.”
The Arkansas senator has already spoken with Trump and key White House officials about his immigration proposals, and says the administration has been receptive. And Cotton dismisses research that shows the economic boon of immigrants, including low-skilled workers, by paraphrasing George Orwell: “Only an intellectual could believe something so stupid.”
Cotton’s new legislation, being formally proposed Tuesday with Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) and detailed exclusively with POLITICO in advance of its release, swings an axe at the nation’s green-card system by eliminating several avenues for U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor family members for green cards.
Right now, U.S. citizens and permanent residents can sponsor a variety of family members, including spouses, parents, siblings and married adult children. Cotton and Perdue’s plan would allow only spouses and unmarried minor children to get green cards, although they would permit visas for aging adult parents whose American children are their caretakers — a population Cotton expects will be modest.
The bill also dumps the diversity visa lottery, which allots about 50,000 visas per year for citizens of countries that traditionally have low rates of immigration to the United States. And it would limit refugees to 50,000 annually — in line with levels outlined in Trump’s controversial executive order.
“Sen. Cotton and I are taking action to fix the shortcomings in our legal immigration system,” Perdue said. “Returning to our historically normal levels of legal immigration will help improve the quality of American jobs and wages.”
All told, the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States under the bill — named the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act — would plummet by 40 percent in the first year and by 50 percent over a decade, according to analysis by Cotton’s aides.
Advocates of reduced immigration are delighted.
“With the introduction of this bill, Sen. Cotton has made it clear that he’s stepping not necessarily into the shoes, but onto the platform where Sessions’ shoes have been,” said Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA, which calls for less immigration. “This is beyond anything that Sen. Sessions ever did.”
Cotton says his legislation is the first step in revamping the current immigration system from one based on family ties toward a more skills-oriented one, a move that Republicans generally support. But the intraparty collision comes with Cotton’s push to tighten the number of low-skilled foreign workers into the country.
“For too long, our immigration policy has skewed toward the interests of the wealthy and powerful: Employers get cheaper labor, and professionals get cheaper personal services like housekeeping,” Cotton wrote in a December New York Times op-ed. “We now need an immigration policy that focuses less on the most powerful and more on everyone else.”
His arguments, however, run counter to research that show immigrants are a net boon to the economy, from the high-skilled foreigners coveted by the tech industry to employees who work at hotels, restaurants and in agriculture. The so-called Gang of Eight bill passed by the Senate in 2013 crafted a new “W” visa program that would allow up to 200,000 low-skilled guest workers in the country per year.
“Economists overwhelmingly think that immigration is good for the economy. That’s not just true at the high-skilled, but low-skilled level,” said Jeremy Robbins, the executive director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, the pro-reform group led by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Robbins, who regularly meets with GOP lawmakers, added: “There is overwhelming support in Congress for the idea of immigration as an economic driver, including in the Republican conference.”
But arguments from the other end of the Republican Party are rising in potency, particularly with Trump in the White House, which has put out a flurry of executive actions in his first two weeks in office. The Trump administration is also entertaining new orders to curb legal immigration programs such as the H-1B visa prized by the tech industry.
Cotton didn’t address employment-based green cards or related visas in his latest measure, noting that the laws governing those issues are more complicated and “touch more entrenched interests.” He also declined to say directly whether he is open to expanding the pool of 85,000 H-1B visas allotted per year.
“There are obviously abuses of the H-1B visa program. I think those abuses need to be addressed before we even consider expanding the program,” Cotton said. “That said, if the evidence demonstrates that say, software companies need PhDs with computer science degrees and they’re going to pay them a wage that’s in the top 1, top 5, top 10 percent of local wages, I’m open to that kind of evidence.”
Mark Krikorian, whose Center for Immigration Studies supports restricting the number of immigrants here, says Cotton has been a rarity among Republicans in that he consistently raised issues surrounding legal immigration in addition to the more oft-discussed debate over illegal immigration.
“He’s relatively young, he’s a rock star among lots of conservatives, combat veteran, the whole thing,” Krikorian said. “And so for him to be the one to carry the standard of immigration reduction really does give it legitimacy.”
The prospects of a full-blown immigration debate such as the one that consumed Congress four years ago appear unlikely, for now. But Cotton said if Trump calls on lawmakers to advance immigration legislation, such as a security and enforcement bill, that could be an opportunity to put forward his plan.
Cotton’s allies extend beyond the White House, to the Justice Department — where Sessions will be able to wield significant power over immigration in his new job.
“There’s only one Jeff Sessions. He’s not replaceable,” Cotton said during the POLITICO interview. “But Sen. Sessions correctly realized that most Americans want immigration levels at most, to stay the same, and more likely, to decrease because it does have a negative impact on jobs and wages.”