Emboldened by Trump, Republicans aim to halve legal immigration

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., left, and David Perdue, R-Ga., speak to the media during a news conference on Capitol Hill Feb. 7. Cotton and Perdue unveiled immigration legislation that they say is aimed at cutting by half the number of green cards issued annually by the U.S. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

While much of the media has been focused on the administration’s campaign against illegal immigration, a rising star among Senate Republicans, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, has been pursuing a parallel agenda: a bill to cut legal immigration in half, an idea long considered toxic in Washington but whose time may be coming around.

Perhaps no one in Washington was happier to hear the news than Roy Beck, a cheerful 68-year-old former reporter who founded the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA, and has been waiting for a moment like this for 20 years. Curtailing legal immigration has long been an untouchable subject in politics — an idea pushed by a handful of groups like Beck’s but largely ignored on the Hill by members of both parties. Now the environment has drastically changed, with Cotton, who enjoys access to Donald Trump’s White House, championing the cause, and a president who seems open to the idea.

In 1996, Beck was crushed when a Republican-controlled Congress pulled back from a bipartisan plan to enact sweeping restrictions on both legal and illegal immigration. He can still narrate the ins and outs of the congressional defeat in vivid detail. Beck, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008, says he came to his position not out of ethnic nativism but out of concern about the environmental and economic impacts of population growth, founded his organization the next year. But he realized it might take another decade for a risk-averse Congress to tackle such a hot-button issue again.

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t once a decade; it was once every two decades,” Beck said last week in NumbersUSA’s Arlington, Va., office. Beck put his dreams of restricting legal immigration on hold as he instead directed his energies toward stopping congressional efforts to offer a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants in 2006 and 2007, and again with the “Gang of Eight” talks in 2013. In 2007, Beck marshaled his grassroots supporters to flood senators’ offices with more than a million faxes, helping to kill the immigration bill.

Then, suddenly, the winds of the immigration debate shifted. Republican candidates for the presidency — from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — began to talk about the need to limit legal immigration. And Trump’s candidacy, which often focused on the supposed dangers of immigrants from Mexico and Muslim-majority countries, began to take off. In a policy paper, Trump called for a total “pause” on employment-based visas — something virtually no member of Congress would have advocated before.

“It was very heartening all of the last two years … as one candidate after another began to talk about how there needs to be some trimming [of legal immigration],” Beck said. Trump’s victory seemed to prove that many more Americans than D.C. politicians shared Beck’s concerns.

Beck saw his organization’s Facebook membership grow from under 1.5 million at the end of 2015 to 6 million this year. When he first started NumbersUSA, Beck worked for nativist John Tanton, who warned of a “Latin onslaught” in immigration and compared immigrants to bacteria, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported. But Beck has disavowed Tanton’s views and says the country should not discriminate against immigrants based on their race or nationality. He proudly pointed at the 6 million number, printed out and pasted to the glass wall of his office’s glass conference room, last week.

“I guess immigration was in the news,” he joked.

Cotton’s bill delivers on several of Beck’s longtime key policy wishes, such as eliminating the visa diversity lottery, which gives 50,000 green cards to people in nations without significant immigration levels to the U.S., and capping refugee levels at 50,000 per year. But the majority of the bill’s legal immigration reduction comes from revoking U.S. citizens’ right to sponsor their siblings, parents and adult children for a green card. (Some elderly parents will still be allowed in on temporary renewable visas if citizens need to care for them.)

The bill will cut legal immigration by more than 400,000 people in its first year, and by more than 500,000 people each year 10 years from now. It works so fast because the millions of family members who are currently waiting in line for a green card — some for more than a decade — will see their petitions disappear immediately. The plurality of those on the waitlist are from Mexico, according to a State Department analysis.

Candidates for U.S. citizenship take the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony for new citizens at City Hall in Jersey City, N.J., on Feb. 22. (Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

Cotton says the bill will return legal immigration to historical levels — when immigrants made up a smaller share of the U.S. population than they do now. Net immigration right now equals about 0.3 percent of the U.S. population annually — lower than the 0.4 percent yearly average since 1790. But the foreign-born population overall is currently at 13 percent — higher than it’s been in recent decades and approaching America’s record high of 14.8 percent, set in 1890, according to the Pew Research Center.


Cotton and Beck believe reducing legal immigration will raise wages for less-educated people already in the country, and that the American economy would be better off if immigrants with certain skills came in rather than those who are just related to citizens. More labor choices for employers mean lower wages, they argue. One potential economic problem with decreasing legal immigration, however, is that the falling U.S. birthrate means that a half-million fewer immigrants per year would result in near zero population and workforce growth, and put the cost burden of the nation’s retirees on a smaller base of younger workers.

It remains to be seen whether Cotton’s bill, called the RAISE Act, an acronym for “Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act,” will become the vehicle for Beck and his ideological compatriots’ first major victory in Congress. So far, it only has one co-sponsor, Sen. David Perdue of Georgia. Several leading Republican senators, including Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, have spoken out against it.

But Cotton likely can count on the president’s support when the time comes. “I won’t go as far as to say the White House has endorsed the bill or adopted the bill as their own, but President Trump expressed very strongly to Sen. Cotton that he supports the principle of making our immigration system more of a merit-based system and less of one which relies on family sponsorship,” Caroline Rabbitt, Cotton’s communication director, told Yahoo News.

The bill contains no hint of compromise for the other side — neither a modest increase in employment-based visas nor a small-scale legalization that could address Trump’s dilemma about what to do with the hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants protected by his predecessor. Trump told ABC News last month that these young people shouldn’t be worried they will be deported because he has a “big heart” — but it’s unclear if he plans to ask Congress to legalize the group. At least one deferred-action recipient was rounded up in the recent raids targeting undocumented immigrants. In the past, bills reducing certain kinds of legal immigration were paired with increases in other areas or potential solutions to the undocumented population.

“I don’t know how you’d get support just to do one side of it in the Senate,” Flake told Politico. “I just don’t.”

Cotton and his office are only just now beginning to reach out to senators to court their support, and it’s always possible the senator will throw in a sweetener in exchange for support from senators wary of signing onto a bill that solely reduces legal immigration. The landscape could also change dramatically by the time the bill is seriously considered — after the GOP deals with its main legislative priorities, Obamacare repeal and tax reform.

Asked if his group would accept a compromise, such as a small-scale legalization of the young people protected by President Obama’s deferred-action executive order or an increase in employment-based visas, Beck said he’d prefer a clean bill but, “We’re certainly not an all-or-nothing kind of organization.”

But Frank Sharry, the executive director of the pro-immigration advocacy organization America’s Voice, said the bill has a “snowball’s chance in hell,” even if it included legalization for deferred-action youth. He said he believes the bill is simply Cotton’s way of positioning himself for a future presidential run.

“I know they’re feeling good these days, but they’re really smoking something if they think this has legs,” Sharry said of anti-immigration groups excited about the bill.

Sharry said those who oppose the bill will make the “powerful” case that it’s hurting U.S. citizens who want to bring in their families. But, said Beck, “it’s not a humanitarian thing. I chose to move away from my family in the Ozarks and I see them once a year. The thing is, in today’s world I’m connected with them practically every day. You can be connected with anyone in the world now.”

Either way, the effort is sure to continue to raise Cotton’s profile. The combat veteran and Harvard graduate reportedly suggested Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster for the national security adviser job to the White House. And advocates on both the left and the right of the immigration issue are calling Cotton the “next Jeff Sessions,” the former senator from Alabama who was a lonely voice calling for lowering legal immigration and is now attorney general. Sessions’ former top aide, Stephen Miller, is a key White House adviser who’s also called for reducing the share of the foreign-born population in the country.

In a rowdy town hall Wednesday night in Arkansas, Cotton fielded several questions about his support for immigration restrictions, including from a 7-year-old boy named Toby who said he and his grandma liked Mexicans and didn’t want to pay for a wall. Cotton replied to the child that the U.S. is a “melting pot” and “we are all one people,” but that Mexico had to deal with its own problems.

Beck, meanwhile, is all anticipation. “I’d like to see it brought by the fall,” he said of the bill. “It’s a good year.”

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