The Decades-Long Campaign to Cut Legal Immigration

Last week, when Donald Trump publicly endorsed the RAISE Act, a bill that would drastically curb legal immigration to the United States, he
did what immigration hard-liners had waited more than two decades for a
President to do. The bill, whose acronym is short for Reforming American
Immigration for Strong Employment, was introduced in February by
Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, both Republicans, but it hadn’t
attracted much attention until Trump took up its mantle. “This
legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families
who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first,” Trump said at a White House press conference. “Our people, our citizens, and our workers,” he went on, have struggled while “competing for jobs against brand-new arrivals.”

While Trump made combating illegal immigration a cornerstone of his Presidential campaign, he also pledged to limit legal immigration. It’s this side of the issue that’s addressed in the RAISE Act. If it becomes law, it would cut the number of legal permanent
residents allowed into the country each year from a million to five
hundred thousand, mainly by limiting the number of foreign family
members that current residents are allowed to sponsor. Family unity has
been one of the core principles of the U.S.’s immigration system since
the nineteen-sixties—anyone with a green card is allowed to sponsor
extended family members, like siblings, grandparents, and adult
children—but the RAISE Act would cap the number of green cards allocated
to family sponsors, and eliminate family sponsorship beyond spouses and
minor children. The bill would also implement a point system that would
rank applicants seeking to come to the U.S. for work—about a hundred and
fifty thousand such people come to the U.S. every year—and give an
advantage to immigrants who already speak English.

Proposals to cut legal immigration aren’t exactly new in Washington. When
comprehensive immigration-reform bills were debated in 2006, 2007, and
2013, conservative lawmakers briefly and unsuccessfully pushed to
include similar measures. But the last time a plan to cut legal
immigration received the kind of attention currently enjoyed by the RAISE Act
was 1996. Then, as now, Republicans controlled both chambers of
Congress. Lamar Smith, a congressman from Texas, was the primary force
behind a set of sweeping reforms to both legal and illegal immigration.
But his effort to cut legal immigration failed: a majority of Senate
Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, and a third of House Republicans
voted against it. Congress then passed an elaborate system of penalties
and enforcement measures for illegal immigration that became the Illegal
Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. That bill,
which was signed by President Bill Clinton, laid the groundwork for the
system of mass deportation that’s in effect today.

Questioning legal immigration hasn’t been an exclusively conservative
position, however. “Today the Democratic Party is seen as being
completely in the pro-immigration column, and the Republican Party as
being in the anti-immigrant column,” Muzaffar Chishti, an immigration
expert at the Migration Policy Institute, told me. “But it wasn’t always
that way.” In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, Democrats, channelling
the concerns of organized labor, considered low-skilled immigrants a
threat to wages and jobs. Their rhetoric then sounded like Trump’s last
week. But as Democrats began to feel that their political future
depended on a growing population of Hispanic voters, their message
changed. The early two-thousands were littered with mea culpas and about-faces
from prominent Democrats who, just years before, had taken strong
stances against immigration. In 2006, for example, the Democratic Senate
Majority Leader, Harry Reid, who in 1993 introduced a bill to eliminate
birthright citizenship, issued a dramatic apology on the Senate floor. Then, in 2010, he excoriated Republicans for advancing a birthright citizenship measure of their own.

And while mainstream members of the Republican Party were once more
aligned with pro-business conservatives, who were sanguine about the
economic advantages of immigrant workers, a more strident
wing—epitomized by Smith and Jeff Sessions, who left the Senate to
become the Attorney General—began pushing a more general anti-immigrant
line that, decades later, has won out in the Trump Administration. “Now
that the Administration has increased immigration enforcement, it’s
turning to legal immigration,” Chishti told me. “This is completely out
of the Sessions playbook. It did not begin with Trump.” This playbook is
literal: in 2015, Sessions and his staff produced a twenty-three-page
document called “Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority.”
It anatomized how the federal government was failing to enforce
immigration laws, and how immigration was causing wages to stagnate and
unemployment to persist. Many of these ideas were included in the
Republican Party’s platform last year, which, for the first time in the
Party’s history, called for an explicit reduction in legal immigration.
For immigration stalwarts, it was Sessions’s involvement in Trump’s
campaign that won their support. “Sessions was Trump’s Good Housekeeping
seal of approval,” Mark Krikorian, the head of the influential
anti-immigration think tank Center for Immigration Studies, told me.
“Sure, Trump is not a real conservative and he’s a little bit unusual,
but he’s got Sessions.”

It’s unlikely that the RAISE Act will become law—even today, many
Republicans in Congress would likely vote against it. (Some, like
Lindsey Graham, have already publicly criticized it.) But in Trump,
nativist activists and lawmakers finally have someone in the White House
who speaks their language. “For the first time ever, a President has
sought a reduction in legal immigration,” Chishti told me. “Even when
Congress has been hostile to immigration, the President has always stood
on the other side of the issue. This is from Wilson to Truman; it was
true of Kennedy and Johnson and Reagan, all the way to George W. Bush
and Obama. There have been no exceptions—until now.”

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