Political Connections

Trump’s Real Goal: Cut Legal Immigration

The Cotton-Perdue plan backed by the White House claims it would boost high-skilled immigration, but experts say it would have the opposite effect.

President Trump, flanked by Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue, unveiling legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration at the White House in August.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 17, 2018, 8 p.m.

President Trump and his Senate allies are now presenting their goal for immigration reform as increasing the number of high-skilled immigrants allowed into the United States. But the immigration legislation from Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue that Trump has endorsed would almost certainly reduce the total number of high-skilled immigrants.

That stark contradiction has been overshadowed by reports that Trump used a vulgarity to describe immigrants from Africa and Haiti during a private White House meeting last week—and by the widely disputed accusation from Cotton and Perdue, who attended, that Sen. Dick Durbin lied when he recounted the president’s language.

But by trumpeting high-skilled immigration, Trump, Cotton, and Perdue are also obscuring the most significant impact of their proposal: a 50 percent cut in legal immigration. Within that smaller pool of immigrants, high-skilled workers could very well comprise a larger share than they do today. But if that shift were to happen, it would be only because immigration levels would fall even faster for those who are lower-skilled.

“They are not talking about immigrating 1 million scientists and engineers,” said Stuart Anderson, the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy and a former immigration aide to two Republican senators. “It’s completely untrue that it would bring in more skilled immigrants. The purpose of this from the beginning has been to cut legal immigration.”

In 2016, the United States admitted nearly 1.2 million legal immigrants. They mostly fall into four big categories: those who are sponsored by employers (about 140,000 annually); refugees and asylum seekers (160,000); those admitted through a diversity lottery (around 50,000); and the relatives of American citizens and legal permanent residents (about 800,000).

The Cotton and Perdue bill that Trump has embraced would limit refugee admissions to 50,000 annually, terminate the diversity lottery, and severely reduce family-based immigration. U.S. citizens could still sponsor spouses and minor children in unlimited numbers, though the age limit for eligible children would be lowered. And legal permanent residents could sponsor those relatives up to an annual cap. But almost all other forms of family reunification—or “chain migration,” as conservatives call it—would be eliminated.

Despite its supporters’ rhetoric, however, the Cotton-Perdue bill would not increase the 140,000 visas available for employment-based immigration. Instead, it would shift those slots out of the current framework—where specific employers sponsor specific workers—and into a new points system, which ranks prospective immigrants on such qualities as their education and English proficiency. The sponsors’ claim that the bill would increase skilled immigration is based almost entirely on the possibility that it would admit more highly educated immigrants than the existing employer system.

Experts don’t all agree it would. But even if it did, the effect would be modest. The 140,000 employment slots include workers’ immediate families. On average, that means only about 70,000 workers are admitted through this category. Increasing the share of workers with a college degree might enlarge the number of skilled immigrants by a few thousand. But any such gain likely would be overwhelmed by the number of skilled immigrants the bill would exclude by retrenching other categories.

The Migration Policy Institute has calculated that nearly half of all immigrants admitted in the past five years have a college degree. The likelihood is that the bill would exclude many more college graduates by shutting those doors than it opens on the employment side.

“If you are thinking about the number of college graduates who would be getting green cards each year, that number would go down,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at MPI.

The Trump administration has also indicated it is considering administrative changes that would make it harder for high-skilled immigrants to remain in the United States under the tech-focused H1-B program, and harder for foreign students to work in the country temporarily after graduation.

The bipartisan immigration-reform plan the Senate approved in 2013 offers a revealing contrast to the Trump agenda. That bill—which passed with support from every Senate Democrat and 14 Senate Republicans before House Republicans killed it—eliminated three categories of non-employment immigration: siblings, married adult children, and the diversity lottery. But it shifted the visas it eliminated into a new merit-based system. That meant that the 2013 Senate plan actually would have admitted more high-skilled immigrants.

Cotton has signaled he might agree to transfer some family-based slots into skills-based immigration. But as long as he’s attempting to slash overall legal-immigration levels—at a time when the country will need more workers to fund Social Security and Medicare for its growing senior population—he’s unlikely to find many takers among Democrats or even centrist Republicans. The 2013 precedent shows there’s a path to bipartisan agreement—but not if the real goal remains locking out as many future immigrants as possible.

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