The Decades-Long Campaign to Cut Legal Immigration


Last week, when Donald Trump publicly endorsed the raise Act, a bill that would drastically curb legal immigration to the United States, he did what immigration hard-liners had waited more than two decades for a President to do. The bill, whose acronym is short for Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment, was introduced in February by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, both Republicans, but it hadn’t attracted much attention until Trump took up its mantle. “This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first,” Trump said at a White House press conference. “Our people, our citizens, and our workers,” he went on, have struggled while “competing for jobs against brand-new arrivals.”

While Trump made combating illegal immigration a cornerstone of his Presidential campaign, he also pledged to limit legal immigration. It’s this side of the issue that’s addressed in the raise Act. If it becomes law, it would cut the number of legal permanent residents allowed into the country each year from a million to five hundred thousand, mainly by limiting the number of foreign family members that current residents are allowed to sponsor. Family unity has been one of the core principles of the U.S.’s immigration system since the nineteen-sixties—anyone with citizenship or a green card is allowed to sponsor family members—but the raise Act would cap the number of green cards allocated to family sponsors, and eliminate family sponsorship beyond spouses and minor children. The bill would also implement a point system that would rank applicants seeking to come to the U.S. for work—about a hundred and fifty thousand such people come to the U.S. every year—and give an advantage to immigrants who already speak English.

Proposals to cut legal immigration aren’t exactly new in Washington. When comprehensive immigration-reform bills were debated in 2006, 2007, and 2013, conservative lawmakers briefly and unsuccessfully pushed to include similar measures. But the last time a plan to cut legal immigration received the kind of attention currently enjoyed by the raise Act was 1996. Then, as now, Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress. Lamar Smith, a congressman from Texas, was the primary force behind a set of sweeping reforms to both legal and illegal immigration. But his effort to cut legal immigration failed: a majority of Senate Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, and a third of House Republicans voted against it. Congress then passed an elaborate system of penalties and enforcement measures for illegal immigration that became the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. That bill, which was signed by President Bill Clinton, laid the groundwork for the system of mass deportation that’s in effect today.

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