Donald Trump and his aides are quietly working with two conservative senators to dramatically scale back legal immigration — a move that would mark a fulfillment of one of the president’s biggest campaign promises.
Trump plans to get behind a bill being introduced later this summer by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) that, if signed into law, would slash in half the number of legal immigrants entering the country each year by 2027, according to four people familiar with the conversations. Currently, about a million legal immigrants enter the country annually, and that number that would fall to 500,000 over the next decade.
The senators have been working closely with Stephen Miller, a senior White House official known for his hawkish stance on immigration. The issue is also a central priority for Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, who has several promises to limit immigration scribbled on the walls of his office.
The forthcoming bill is a revised and expanded version of legislation the two senators unveiled in February, known as the RAISE Act, which they discussed with Trump at the White House in March, and which the president praised at the time.
Though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have at least paid lip service to the need to crack down on illegal immigration, reducing legal immigration is more controversial, even among Republicans.
It’s unclear how the White House could pull off such contentious legislation, given Congress is already bogged down by its attempt to repeal Obamacare and has not yet seriously started on tax reform and an infrastructure package – two other major GOP priorities. Congress must also pass legislation by this fall to avoid a government shutdown and to raise the debt ceiling.
"Senator Cotton knows that being more deliberate about who we let into our country will raise working-class wages, which is why an overwhelming majority of Americans support it. He and Senator Perdue are working with President Trump to fix our immigration system so that instead of undercutting American workers, it will support them and their livelihoods," said Caroline Rabbitt, a Cotton spokeswoman.
The reintroduction of the bill is likely to mark the beginning of an important battle within the GOP between immigration hawks, now led by Cotton, who will be acting with the backing of the White House, and dovish lawmakers such as Arizona’s John McCain and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham.
Lawmakers like Cotton, who has inherited the hardline mantle long held by Miller’s former boss, Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, argue that low-skilled immigrants decrease job opportunity and suppress wages for native-born workers — particularly those on the lower-end of the income scale. Graham and his allies say that the overall economy benefits from the ready availability of cheap labor.
The last time Republicans seriously attempted to curb legal immigration was over two decades ago, in 1996, when a Republican Congress led by Newt Gingrich pressured President Bill Clinton to include a provision that slashed legal immigration in a broader immigration reform package. It was ultimately dropped from the bill, though, after Clinton faced opposition from some of the country’s top business leaders.
The Cotton-Perdue legislation would also mark a broader shift away from the current immigration system, which favors those with family currently in the U.S., and toward a merit-based approach. It would, for example, increase the number of green cards — which allow for permanent residency in the U.S. — that are granted on the basis of merit to foreigners in a series of categories including outstanding professors and researchers, those holding advanced degrees, and those with extraordinary ability in a particular field.
Those admitted to the U.S. on the basis of merit have accounted for less than 10 percent of all legal immigrants over the past 15 years, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute and the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration Yearbook, and Trump pledged as a presidential candidate to shift the U.S. to a merit-based immigration system.
Miller is also working with Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to put new limits on sanctuary cities and has convened meetings at the White House on limiting refugees.
A senior White House official described the moves as part of a broader reorganization of the immigration system. The official said the White House particularly wanted to target welfare programs and limit citizenship and migration to those who pay taxes and earn higher wages.
"In order to be eligible for citizenship, you’ll have to demonstrate you are self-sufficient and you don’t receive welfare," the senior administration official said.
"You’re going to reduce low-skilled immigration substantially, which will protect American workers and recent immigrants themselves," this person said.
The move to curtail legal immigration would not only mark the partial fulfillment of one of the president’s most controversial campaign promises, but — with the future of the Obamacare repeal bill in doubt — it would provide a badly needed political victory to a White House that has been unable to escape accusations of collusion with Russia during the presidential campaign.
A second White House official said the push was real — "but it’s a difficult one in the current Congress, and we know that."
Trump praised the virtues of the merit-based models of Canada and Australia in his remarks to a joint session of Congress in late February. "Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, we will have so many more benefits," he said. "It will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages, and help struggling families — including immigrant families — enter the middle class."
Immigration hawks praised the White House for following through on a broad range of immigration-related promises, from loosening the constraints on border-patrol agents to shining a spotlight on the victims of crime committed by illegal immigrants.
At the same time, they remain harshly critical that the president has yet to act on DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era measure that granted legal status to those brought into the U.S. illegally as children, who are known as Dreamers.
"What I find really shocking is not just that they didn’t discontinue DACA…but that they are continuing to issue new DACA work permits to those who didn’t have them before," said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "To me, that’s the biggest failure on immigration."