By David Thornton
A bill introduced into the Senate by Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) and supported by President Trump would overhaul the U.S. immigration system. The bill would shift priorities for immigrants to an employment basis while reducing the number of legal immigrants overall.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the RAISE Act, “Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy,” would replace the current application process and reallocate the current number of employment-based green cards. Under the new system, green cards would be issued to highly skilled workers, English speakers and immigrants with the financial means to avoid becoming welfare recipients. The bill would also make it more difficult for current legal US residents to get green cards for extended families and eliminate the lottery system in which immigrants from underrepresented countries can win a green card.
Per the Journal’s report, the US currently issues about 1 million green cards annually. Of these, the majority, about two-thirds, are issued on the basis of family connections to US citizens and legal residents. 140,000 green cards are employment based and the remainder are issued by lotteries and to refugees.
While the bill would reprioritize green cards for business purposes, the overall goal seems to be to reduce legal immigration. An aide to Tom Cotton cited by the Journal said that the legislation would reduce immigration by 41 percent or 638,000 people in its first year. After 10 years, immigration would be halved from current levels, a decrease of about 540,000 immigrants annually.
In a press release, Cotton said that the bill would increase wages for blue-collar workers. “For decades, our immigration system has been completely divorced from the needs of our economy, and working Americans’ wages have suffered as a result. Our legislation will set things right,” Cotton said. “We will build an immigration system that raises working wages, creates jobs, and gives every American a fair shot at creating wealth, whether your family came over on the Mayflower or just took the oath of citizenship.”
“Right now, our current immigration system does not meet the needs of our economy,” Perdue said. “We want to welcome talented individuals from around the world who wish to come to the United States legally to work and make a better life for themselves. The RAISE Act will create a skills-based system that is more responsive to the needs of our economy and preserves the quality of jobs available to American workers.”
President Trump has indicated his support, even introducing the bill in a White House press conference. “For decades, the U.S. has operated a very low-skilled immigration system. It has not been fair to our people, to our citizens, to our workers,” Trump said.
The bill is likely to cause more division within the already fractured GOP. The pro-business wing of the party typically favors looser restrictions on immigration while protectionists want to reduce the number of immigrants competing for American jobs.
Exit polling from Republican primaries in 2016 indicated that immigration was a minor issue and that voters were split on whether to provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but the RAISE Act goes farther than the most recent attempts at immigration reform. Rather than dealing with the problem of illegal immigration, it attempts to restrict and reduce legal immigration.
While prioritizing visas based on the needs of American companies is a good idea, reducing the number of visas overall is not. A major driver of illegal immigration has been the long wait and difficult process to come to the U.S. legally. Business Insider notes that immigrating legally can take years or decades and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. Making it more difficult to come to the U.S. legally will make illegal immigration more attractive.
Making immigration more difficult also hurts American companies. Shortages of qualified workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields means that many American tech companies rely on highly skilled foreign workers, but low-skilled immigrants are also needed. In the past, immigration crackdowns have led to shortages of farm workers and the loss of billions of dollars in crops. The LA Times reported in March that Napa Valley farmers were offering $16 per hour for farm workers with no takers.
Cotton and Perdue and probably correct that reducing immigration will increase wages for American workers. Economic law dictates that as the supply of available workers decreases, the price of labor will rise, but that is only half the story. The other half is that prices of goods, such as farm-grown food, and services will also rise to compensate for the higher cost of production.
Some companies may choose to move operations outside of the United States where labor is cheaper. Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Uber are among the American tech companies expanding operations in Canada where it is easier to hire the skilled immigrants that they need.
The economic fallacy of restricting immigration to raise wages is similar to the liberal policy of artificially raising the minimum wage. Even if wages go up under the plan, gains for blue-collar workers are likely to evaporate due to the higher cost of living.
In the end, the bill will likely go nowhere. Senate rules require 60 votes for cloture and no Democrats are likely to support the measure. Many Republicans will probably also oppose the curbs to legal immigration.
The RAISE Act has some good aspects, but, at its core, the bill represents a shift in Republican attitudes. For years, Republicans have argued that they were against illegal immigration, but in favor of legal immigration. No more. The Cotton-Perdue bill can only be considered to be anti- legal immigration.