U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson was conspicuously silent earlier this month as his Georgia GOP colleague David Perdue rolled out a bill slashing immigration levels with President Donald Trump at his side.
So when a group of constituents asked the third-term Republican whether he supported the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, or RAISE Act, at his rowdy town hall on Monday, the crowd leaned in a little closer.
Isakson appeared to both condone and oppose the broader concepts underpinning Perdue's legislation.
Tamping down on immigration in certain situations and enforcing current law are warranted, but immigration levels should be based on unemployment levels and "not an arbitrary number," he said.
“If we have low unemployment in America, there’s nothing wrong with bringing workers in to meet the demands,” said Isakson, who spoke of his Swedish grandfather who could not initially speak English. “If we have high unemployment, we shouldn’t be bringing in workers to take those jobs. We should have Americans going back to work.”
Perdue's legislation seeks to halve the number of immigrants legally allowed into the U.S. each year, including refugees, and freeze the number of employment-based greencards at 140,000 a year. It would also prioritize would-be migrants who speak English, are well-educated and already have job offers while ending the current preference offered to the extended family of immigrants already living legally in the U.S.
The bill won near-instantaneous rebuke from Democrats. It has also divided some in the GOP, since many businesses rely on immigrants.
Isakson's comments drew cheers and jeers from the crowd at different moments, and some attendees shouted at the Republican for not being direct about whether he would support the bill.
When pressed by reporters after the event, Isakson said the RAISE Act was a "fine piece of legislation" but he ultimately hedged on whether he would vote for the measure in its current form.
"When I get to the point of making that decision I possibly could, but I reserve the right not to," he said. "I’m just not at that point yet."
Read more on myAJC: Isakson faces frustrated voters at Kennesaw town hall