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Which Side Is Donald Trump on in the Fight Over Legal Immigration?

President Trump is best known for his hardline stance against illegal immigration, but activists are gearing up for a potentially broader fight.
Image: Trump returns to the White House from Florida
President Donald J. Trump returns to the White House from Florida, where he spent the weekend at his Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago, in Washington on Feb. 6, 2017.Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

President Donald Trump is best known for his stance against illegal immigration, but activists are gearing up for a broader ideological fight over whether legal immigrants and foreign workers benefit the country.

Experts are poring over two purportedly leaked draft memos, obtained by The Washington Post and Vox, one that would call for stricter rules targeting low-income immigrants who use federal benefits and another that potentially could create new rules related to worker visas.

The language in both is in line with Trump's more nativist supporters, and it includes directions to gather and publicize data on any potential harm immigrants and visa programs might do to American workers.

NBC News could not independently verify their authenticity, and the White House did not respond to a request for comment, but the content of the memos is emblematic of a broader shift within the GOP from a relative consensus among lawmakers that immigrants have been a boon to the economy and a symbol of the American dream to a more pessimistic view that includes prominent calls for reducing overall immigration levels.

On Tuesday, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA), both of whom have been supportive of Trump, are introducing the RAISE Act, which would cut the number of family-based green cards issued each year in half, from about 1,000,000 to 500,000.

"There's no denying this generation-long surge in low-skilled immigration has hurt blue-collar wages," Cotton told reporters.

Cotton said he had discussed his broader proposal to shift immigration toward a more economy-based system rather than family-based system with the president and received a positive response, but that the White House had not endorsed his specific bill.

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the pro-immigration group America's Voice, told NBC News that her group is "very concerned about additional restrictions on legal immigration, as it's all of a piece, coming from the same dark place."

"They're layering in all these policies to restrict immigration every way it happens," Tramonte said.

For Trump, the issue of whether to seek an overall reduction in legal immigration and worker visas places him uncomfortably between two groups that have had an outsized role in shaping his agenda.

On one hand, his inner circle of nationalist advisers is intensely committed to a view that immigrants take native-born jobs, depress wages and fail to assimilate under current policies.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, Trump's nominee for attorney general, is one of the party's most prominent immigration skeptics, and his like-minded former spokesman, Stephen Miller, is an adviser and speechwriter to the president.

Breitbart, the pro-Trump media outlet that White House adviser Steve Bannon ran before joining Trump's presidential campaign, has regularly reported on alleged visa abuses and conducted its own polling to demonstrate support for a "total revolution against mass immigration."

Bannon, who now serves as a top White House adviser, complained to Trump in a 2015 Breitbart interview that too many Silicon Valley chief executives were Asian, which he suggested could undermine "civic society." In 2016, Bannon told Miller that legal immigration — not illegal — was "the beating heart" of America's economic woes.

On the other hand, Trump's friends in the business community have argued that the United States needs to mine more talent from abroad and bring in younger workers as the native-born population ages in order to boost the economy. Industry groups have long pushed for an increase in the number of H-1B visas available, which is currently capped at 85,000 a year — far fewer than the number of applications.

This pro-immigration wing includes Trump's nominee to run the Labor Department, CKE Restaurants Chief Executive Andy Puzder, who would be responsible for enforcing work standards at businesses that employee foreign workers.

"The best way to protect American workers is to generate economic growth," Puzder wrote in The Wall Street Journal last year. "This is not synonymous with aggressively restricting immigration."

Trump's public statements have put him in both camps at different points, making it unclear where he might come down as president.

When Bannon raised his objections to immigrant entrepreneurs, for example, Trump pushed back and said he favored allowing skilled students who went to school in America to stay after they graduate.

During the presidential race, Trump's campaign put out Sessions-like policy papers sharply criticizing H-1B visas, only to watch the candidate frequently contradict them when the topic came up.

In a CNBC debate in October 2015, Trump denied criticizing Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg for calling for more H-1B visas (the quote was from Trump's own website), and said he was "all in favor of keeping these talented people here so they can go to work in Silicon Valley."

In a Fox News debate last March, Trump was asked to explain the contradiction and responded that he was "changing" his official stance and that "we need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can't do it, we'll get them in."

The campaign said afterward that he was confused, and at a CNN debate later that month, he said he opposed H-1B visas as "very, very bad for workers" and would call for a pause to examine them.

Trump's sympathy with business leaders came from personal experience. He applied for H-2A visas to bring in seasonal workers at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and other Trump properties, and he complained in the March Fox debate it was "very, very hard" to find Americans to do those jobs. In speeches, he often promised a "big beautiful door" for legal immigrants to go with his wall.

Limits on green cards and visas are set by Congress, but experts on both sides of the debate believe Trump has options to slow or reduce immigration at the margins. Trump's executive order restricting travel from seven majority Muslim countries initially blocked green card holders before the White House clarified that that they would be allowed to enter the country.

Take the two draft orders published in Vox.

The order on green cards drew attention for its call to deport immigrants who spend more than five years on federal benefits, but the government is already allowed to deport people who become "public charges" or bar them from entry if it believes they're likely to become a public charge. These rules are difficult to enforce once people enter the country, however, and immigrants don't qualify for many federal benefits for at least five years.

Where it could make potentially make a bigger impact, however, is by slowing or stopping future applications by expanding the definition of what counts as a "public charge" to include programs like Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, which currently don't count.

"It's significant," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a supporter of lower immigration levels. "The public charge requirements in the law have been ignored [and] defined away for years and need to be restored."

Randy Capps, a researcher at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, told NBC News that changes in how officials determine "public charge" requirements "could have a big impact on future legal immigrants," depending on how they were ultimately worded.

When it comes to work visas, Trump could scale back the length of Optional Practical Training visas, which let students stay for a period after graduation while they look for jobs that would let them obtain H-1B visas.

Trump could also reverse an order by President Barack Obama to extend work authorization to spouses of H-1B workers. The leaked order also calls for stricter oversight of L-1 visas, which companies use to transfer workers from offices overseas.

Some experts wondered whether Trump might extend national security restrictions on travel to countries beyond the initial seven he named last week. Doing so would create more disruption, however, especially if it included countries that do more business with the United States and have larger immigrant communities.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said on NBC's "Meet The Press" last week that "perhaps other countries need to be added going forward."

Many of these changes would have to go through a long regulatory process and, like Trump's earlier executive orders, could face litigation.

But there also may be some bipartisan room to address at least some concerns raised by Trump, who has said since winning that he wants to crack down on "abuses of visa programs."

A number of bills in Congress from members of both parties propose changes to the H-1B program, including adding requirements that employers search for Americans to fill slots first and that they prioritize higher-income applicants to make it harder to undercut local wages.

Labor unions have long complained that the current system needs reform to prevent large outsourcing firms from snatching up visas and paying below-market wages, a practice that's drawn increased scrutiny in recent years.

As for a broader overhaul of the immigration system, there is also some support in both parties for changes that would give greater priority to immigrants with relevant job skills over those with family ties. The "Gang of Eight bill," an immigration reform measure that passed the Senate in 2013 before dying in the House, included some steps in this direction.

Major legislation is unlikely, however, as Democrats are reluctant to negotiate on a bill that would not also include a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. Trump and lawmakers in both parties would also have to resolve the fierce internal debate over whether a new system should expand overall immigration or contract it.