WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump threw himself behind a bill on Wednesday that would make it dramatically more difficult for people to come to the U.S. legally, in spite of his past claims that he did not want to cut the number of people allowed into the country.
Trump held an event at the White House with Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) to boost the latest iteration of their bill to slash the ways foreign nationals can move to the United States.
The bill from Cotton and Perdue, known as the RAISE Act, would end the practice of prioritizing green cards for adult children and extended family of people already in the U.S., discontinue an immigration lottery program and limit the number of refugees to be accepted into the U.S. to only 50,000. The bill would cut legal immigration in half, according to estimates from the senators and outside experts.
The president said the bill would be “the most significant reform to our immigration system in half a century” and would “reduce poverty, increase wages and save taxpayers billions and billions of dollars.”
He also claimed the current green card system provides a “fast-track to citizenship” ― although in truth, having a green card is the standard path to citizenship.
The bill would favor applicants “who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families, and demonstrate skills that will contribute to our economy,” Trump said.
The president said the legislation would require immigrants to be more self-sufficient and prevent them from collecting safety net benefits. “They’re not gonna come in and just immediately collect welfare,” he said.
Current law already bars anyone who might become a “public charge” from receiving a green card, and prevents lawful permanent residents from receiving most safety net benefits for five years. But immigration hawks have long complained of loopholes in those restrictions. For instance, food stamps and Medicaid ― two of the country’s biggest safety net programs ― are exempt from the public charge criteria.
The idea, according to the president and senators, is to move toward a “merit-based” immigration plan, along the lines of the systems in Canada and Australia. But this legislation wouldn’t simply change the makeup of who can come into the country ― it would dramatically reduce the number of immigrants admitted overall, the bill’s proponents say.
“This legislation will not only restore our competitive edge in the 21st century, but it will restore the sacred bonds of trust between America and its citizens,” Trump said. “This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first.”
Most economists say that immigration is actually beneficial to the economy and that curtailing legal immigration would slow growth. And Canada and Australia both admit legal immigrants at a far higher rate relative to their total populations than the U.S. does, including on the basis of family ties.
Trump also claimed that the current immigration “has not been fair to our people,” including immigrants and minority workers whose jobs, he said, are taken by “brand new arrivals.”
In fact, the bill could disproportionately affect nonwhite Americans, who are more likely to be recent immigrants and still have relatives living abroad, by making the already difficult process of bringing their families to the U.S. next to impossible.
Cotton previously said the bill would help prevent people from immigrating to the U.S. and then bringing over their “village” or “tribe.”
Trump told The Economist in May that he was not looking to reduce the number of legal immigrants. “We want people coming in legally,” he said at the time.
Immigration reform groups and even one Republican senator immediately panned the bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who pushed for a broad immigration reform bill in 2013, said in a statement that he supports merit-based immigration but believes cutting legal immigration would hurt the economy.
“I fear this proposal will not only hurt our agriculture, tourism and service economy in South Carolina, it incentivizes more illegal immigration as positions go unfilled,” he said. “After dealing with this issue for more than a decade, I know that when you restrict legal labor to employers it incentivizes cheating.”
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.
This story has been updated with a statement from Lindsey Graham.