Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue unveiled legislation Tuesday that would overhaul components of the U.S. government’s legal immigration system, cutting by more than half the number of refugees permitted to enter the country and abolishing a federal green card lottery program originally intended to bolster diversity.
Co-authored by fellow first-term Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Perdue’s proposal would codify some of the more divisive immigration policies advocated by President Donald Trump. It would reach even further by adding new limits on which types of family members U.S. citizens and permanent residents can sponsor for green cards, moves that drew the ire of Georgia refugee groups.
The goal of the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, or RAISE Act, is to help shield low-skilled American workers who have seen their wages frozen over the past few decades due in part to a glut of foreign-born competition, Perdue and Cotton said Tuesday morning at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
Perdue and Cotton said their plan would cut legal immigration 41 percent below 2015 levels in its first year and 50 percent below that benchmark of roughly 1 million within a decade, bringing it in line with a level they said hews more closely to levels in the mid-1970s and early 1980s.
“This is a first step,” Perdue said. “It’s not a sweeping, comprehensive attempt to solve all legal immigration problems, nor does it address illegal issues. We are simply trying today to bring a rational, compassionate approach to this different issue within the immigration conversation.”
The proposal would eliminate the State Department’s Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, a unique lottery system created more than 20 years ago that selects roughly 50,000 people annually to permanently live in the United States.
Nearly 14.4 million people from scores of countries applied for visas through the program in 2015. Only 0.3 percent of applicants were ultimately selected, according to federal figures.
Supporters have touted the program for its melting pot ethos. Perdue described it as “outdated” and ineffective at moving the needle on diversity. Cotton echoed a criticism once lobbed by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which warned in a 2007 report that the program was susceptible to fraud.
Their legislation would also cut the number of visas the government offers refugees to 50,000 per year, on par with what Trump advocated for in a recent executive order. By comparison, then-President Barack Obama announced plans in September to let 110,000 refugees into the country during the 2017 budget year.
The measure would also significantly alter another avenue for legal immigration. Under the current system, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents can sponsor members of their family — including their parents, adult children and siblings — to get them green cards. The new measure would eliminate many of those preferences, leaving in place exceptions only for spouses and dependent children, as well as elderly parents in need of caretaking.
Left untouched under the legislation are employment-based immigration programs, including those for seasonal agricultural workers and foreigners with specialty skills. Technology giants such as Microsoft and Facebook say the latter helps them stay competitive internationally. They have lobbied Trump against taking executive action on the program.
The legislation comes at a moment when immigration continues to dominate the national conversation.
Trump’s frozen executive order on immigration and refugees continues to spur protests, counterprotests and confusion in airports around the world. It calls for a temporary freeze on all refugees and a 90-day ban on anyone traveling into the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Administration officials — who say the order is needed to increase national security by keeping terrorists from entering the nation — argued in favor of the policy before a federal appeals court Tuesday after a judge placed a stay on the order last week. Opponents say the order would harm both the nation’s economy and its efforts to fight terror groups such as ISIS by alienating Muslims who are U.S. allies in the conflict.
Meanwhile, some of Trump’s supporters have vowed to boycott several major corporations, including Coca-Cola, 84 Lumber and Budweiser, for airing pro-immigrant Super Bowl ads. And GOP leaders in Congress continue to work behind closed doors to formalize a strategy for fronting the money to build Trump’s proposed wall on the southern border.
Cotton said he and Perdue were in touch with the White House as they drafted the RAISE Act. He said he spoke to Trump by phone Tuesday morning and that the new president “strongly supports the concept of this legislation, of trying to reorient our legal immigration system toward merit-based approaches.”
The White House, however, stopped short of offering a formal endorsement Tuesday.
Unclear at the moment is the bill’s prospects in the Senate.
Perdue and Cotton said they expect to gain support from Republicans and some Democrats. But in the short term the Senate’s schedule is packed as it considers Trump’s Cabinet nominees. Democrats could also filibuster Perdue and Cotton’s legislation should it be called up for consideration.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll see this on the floor of the Senate this year,” Cotton said.
The nation’s legal immigration system has been massively clogged for years. As of Nov. 1, about 4.3 million immigrants who have relatives in the United States were waiting for family-sponsored visas to live here legally, according to a U.S. State Department report. For family-sponsored visas, the worldwide limit for fiscal year 2017 is 226,000. The country with the longest waiting list for visas is Mexico with 1.3 million people in line, followed by 387,323 from the Philippines and 331,423 from India.
Given the huge backlog, reducing legal channels for immigration could create unintended consequences, said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-area immigration attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“If passed,” he said of the legislation, “it will be a major motivator in increasing illegal immigration, as families continue to try to reunite.”
The bill also comes as millions of people remain displaced by deprivation and violence around the world. In 2015, a record 65.3 million were driven from their homes by conflict and persecution, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. That number includes 21.3 million refugees, many of whom fled the bloody civil war in Syria.
Georgia receives just a few thousand refugees fleeing persecution each year. In the budget year ending in September, 3,017 were resettled in Georgia, mostly from Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Syria.
The head of one local refugee resettlement agency called the legislation “misguided and counterproductive,” adding he was disappointed one of Georgia’s senators signed onto it.
“Slamming the doors on refugees and immigrants is fundamentally un-American and ignores the tenets of who we are as a nation and the history of our founding,” said J.D. McCrary, the executive director of the Atlanta International Rescue Committee. “The United States is a country of immigrants with a long, proud history of providing safe refuge for the world’s most vulnerable fleeing conflict and persecution, and our country has benefited tremendously, not only economically but also culturally, socially and in every aspect of our society, by every immigrant who has arrived.”
Advocates point out that refugees work in many of Georgia’s largest industries — including poultry processing, tourism and hospitality — and they pay taxes here. Some create their own businesses and employ other Georgians. And 91 percent of refugee households in Georgia become self-sufficient, meaning they are working and paying their own expenses, within six months of arrival, according to the Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies
“Those who come to the United States due to persecution and war are highly motivated and have proven to be innovative and successful, contributing greatly to our economy,” said Frances McBrayer, the chairwoman of the coalition. “To keep America vibrant and successful, we need to keep the doors open to refugees. Diminishing the opportunity for refugees to resettle here ultimately diminishes us as a nation.”