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Trump Backs Slashing Legal Immigration With 'Merit-Based' System

President Trump announced his support Wednesday for legislation that would cut in half the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States while moving to a "merit-based" system of entry.
Image: Donald Trump, Tom Cotton, David Perdue
President Donald Trump, flanked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R- Ark., left, and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration.Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced his support Wednesday for legislation that would cut in half the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States while moving to a "merit-based" system of entry.

"That is why we are here today: Merit-based," said Trump, who was joined in the White House Roosevelt Room by the bill's Senate sponsors, Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga.

The RAISE Act, which Cotton and Perdue introduced in February, would scrap the current lottery system to get into the U.S. and instead institute a points-based system for earning a green card.

Factors that would be taken into account include English language skills, education, high-paying job offers and age. The number of legal immigrants would be reduced by 50 percent over 10 years.

New immigrants would also be prevented from collecting welfare, an issue Trump had spoken to in recent months.

"That's a very big thing. They're not going to come in and just immediately go and collect welfare," Trump said.

The president had promised an Iowa crowd in June that he would soon introduce legislation that would bar legal immigrants to America from receiving welfare benefits for at least five years. At the time, critics said that was already the law of the land, put into place under then-President Bill Clinton.

Republicans across the ideological spectrum on immigration have long talked about retooling the green card system, which is for permanent residents, to focus less on family ties and more on useful skills.

At issue is how many immigrants to let in: Immigration doves argue that it's impossible to meet Trump's goals of higher growth without bringing in more workers, while immigration hawks argue they will drag down wages and fail to assimilate.

Economists broadly agree that immigration boosts the economy overall, including for native-born Americans, but some studies also suggest that new immigrants depress incomes for certain low-skilled workers, especially in existing immigrant communities.

While cracking down on illegal immigration was central to Trump's campaign, his position on legal immigration has been much more ambiguous.

Trump has previously said he wants people to come in on merit, but also rebuffed the idea that he wants to reduce legal immigration.

"No, no, no, we want people coming in legally," he told the Economist in May.

Slashing legal immigration is a key feature of the Cotton-Perdue bill, though many pro-immigration Republicans like Jeb Bush have suggested similar changes without an overall reduction in immigration.

An hour after Trump announced his support for the RAISE Act, one prominent GOP senator, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., issued a series of tweets criticizing the proposal, deeming it "devastating to SC economy" if it were to become law. Graham was part of the 2013 "Gang of Eight" who sought comprehensive immigration reform.

On the other side of the aisle, DNC Chair Tom Perez called the immigration effort not "just an affront to our values, it's also a threat to our economy" in a statement Wednesday.

Meanwhile, advocates for restricting legal immigration like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) released a statement applauding Trump, Cotton and Perdue "for recognizing the current dysfunction of our outdated immigration policies that, unlike the rest of the nation, have been stuck in a time warp for the last 50 years."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an immigration hawk himself, said in a statement that the RAISE proposal "will help the Department of Justice perform its duties to uphold our nation's immigration law."

Top Trump advisers, including Sessions and policy aide Stephen Miller, have long championed restrictions on foreign workers and legal immigrants, who, they argue, depress wages.

Trump's prepared speeches and policy papers often reflected their views: His campaign proposed a pause on issuing H-1B worker visas, and Trump pledged in a speech to return overall immigration to "historical norms," which some observers saw as a code for a significant decrease.

But when Trump has given interviews or participated in off-the-cuff forums, he’s sounded much more enthusiastic about immigration and used talking points that sound more reminiscent of pro-business allies who don't want any reduction.

During the campaign, he disavowed his own campaign’s position on H-1B visas in some primary debates, instead saying the U.S. should try to attract more tech workers from abroad, only to return to his hardline positions later.

Trump also defended the use of foreign labor at his resort properties, which have continued to request worker visas since his election. His administration recently raised the number of available visas for seasonal workers by 15,000, which drew negative coverage from conservative outlets like Breitbart.