The battle to curb immigration into the United States has a new target, legal immigration. Senators Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., sponsored a bill that could cut “annual immigration levels by half after ten years.” The goals of the Reforming American Immigration for a Stronger Economy (RAISE) Act are “to attract more ultra-high-skilled workers—and give working-class families the raise they deserve.” The bill will achieve the first goal by implementing a merit-based point system like those used in Canada and Australia to decide who can apply for legal permanent residency (LPR), or “green card” as it is popularly known. The system will give applicants high points for having a degree in science and technology, for being proficient in English, for being between 25 and 35 years old, for having a high-paying job offer, for extraordinary achievements (like a Nobel Prize), or for “investing $1.35 million and retaining an active management role on the project.”
To achieve the second goal, the RAISE Act will eliminate the LPR family-based preferences for parents and siblings of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The bill will only allow the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to apply for green cards. It will also eliminate the diversity visa lottery and lower the number of green cards for refugees to 50,000 a year (almost 85,000 refugees entered the U.S. in 2016). The arguments behind these cuts is that these mechanisms, especially the parent-sibling preference, have created a “steady supply of cheap, unskilled labor” that coupled with increasing globalization and automation have lowered wages for U.S.-born workers. Additionally, Cotton and Perdue argue that because the people who come to the U.S. through these channels are low- or un-skilled immigrants, “half of immigrant households receive benefits from our social welfare system.” Thus, instead of contributing to the economy, they argue, these immigrants are a fiscal burden.
Cotton and Perdue promise the RAISE Act will erase these problems by increasing the number of high-skilled immigrants who receive green cards each year while reducing the number of green cards given to low-skilled immigrants. However, the bill will not attract more high-skill workers into the country or reduce the supposed burden immigrants have on welfare budgets. Instead, the bill plays into the anti-immigration rhetoric by eliminating some of the family-based preferences for LPR and the diversity lottery, and by lowering the number of refugees allowed into the U.S.
The point-system Cotton and Perdue propose will have a minimal impact on the number of high-skilled workers who come to the U.S. Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst of the Migration Policy Institute, explains that the bill keeps the number of employment-based green cards at its current cap of 140,000 a year. The new system does not seek to bring more high-skilled workers by increasing the number of employer-based green cards available. Instead, it attempts to increase the number of high-skilled workers by changing the criteria by which these green cards are granted. However, the point system does not significantly alter the chances people already have of getting a green card under the current system. Like in the current system, Gelatt argues, people who are already in the U.S. studying, applying for an H-1B worker visa or changing their status from H-1B to LPR will have the best chances of receiving a green card. Current levels of high-skilled immigrant workers would remain roughly the same under the proposed bill.
A curious characteristic of the RAISE Act, Gelatt points out, is that it may make it easier for people without a job offer to obtain LPR if they accumulate enough points in other areas (e.g., age, advanced degree, native English speaker). This characteristic of the proposed point-based system goes against changes implemented in Canada and Australia, the models for Cotton and Perdue’s system. These countries, Gelatt notes, “modified their point systems to prioritize entry of those with a job offer, after realizing that not all highly skilled immigrants fare well in local labor markets.” What the Canadian and Australian examples demonstrate is that although a country needs “ultra-high-skilled workers,” they may not be in high enough demand to be able to find employment soon after arriving in the country as medium-skilled and low-skilled workers are.
The RAISE Act’s reduction of legal immigration levels by half is the most controversial aspect of the bill. As mentioned before, the bill will reduce immigration by lowering the number of refugees allowed into the country and eliminating the diversity lottery and family-based preferences for parents and sibling of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. According to the Department of Homeland Security, of the roughly 1 million green cards awarded in 2015, 11.3% were awarded to refugees and 4.6% were awarded through the lottery. The largest portion of green card recipients, about two thirds (64.7%), were relatives (spouses, children, parents, siblings) of a U.S. citizen or legal permanent residents.
These are the immigrants that will be affected the most by the proposed bill, the families of U.S. citizens and legal residents. Many parents and siblings of immigrants do not wish to come and live in the U.S. Yet, the fact that so many green cards are given to parents and siblings shows how important family reunification is for immigrants. Not having the option of bringing these family members may not be a major factor in choosing where a person wants to migrate but may also deter some people, even high-skilled people, from choosing the U.S.
Family reunification is not the only issue raised by the proposed cuts to immigration. Reducing immigration by half will negatively impact the U.S. economy. Two reports released last year, one by the University of Pennsylvania and another by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, concluded that although first-generation immigrants pose a burden to state and local budgets (mainly because of the education of their children), they have an overall net positive impact on the economy. Furthermore, the National Academies’ report argues that “immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth.” The report states that high-skilled immigrants have “boosted the nation’s capacity for innovation, entrepreneurship, and technological change.” Just as Cotton and Perdue argue. The report also concludes that immigrants in general have provided labor that “has helped the United States avoid the problems facing other economies that have stagnated as a result of unfavorable demographics, particularly the effects of an aging workforce and reduced consumption by older residents.”
This is the positive impact on the economy that Cotton and Perdue want to cut in half with the RAISE Act. High-skilled workers are necessary for any country to thrive. Low- and unskilled workers are also necessary. An economy and society cannot prosper without the latter. The burden the children of immigrants have on state and local education budgets is an investment in the future. The National Academies’ report found that “as adults, the children of immigrants (the second generation) are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population.” The economy not only needs this strong fiscal contribution. It also needs the spending power of the millions of people Cotton and Perdue will keep out of the country if the bill passes Congress.
If Cotton and Perdue really want to help U.S.-born workers, they need to sponsor legislation that increases access and investment in technical education programs. These programs would help current workers adjust to and new workers be prepared for the rapid technological changes in the manufacturing and service industries. Technical knowledge will make workers more competitive in the new labor market, not cutting immigration levels.
A major argument Cotton, Perdue, President Trump and many advocates of low immigration make is that immigrants are a burden because they are more likely to be on welfare than the native-born population. Cotton and Perdue cite a 2015 report by Steven Camarota, director of research of the Center for Immigration Studies. Using data from the Census Bureau, Camarota found that in 2012 “51 percent of households headed by an immigrant (legal or illegal) reported that they used at least one welfare program during the year, compared to 30 percent of native households.”
This is a shocking percentage. Yet, Camarota looks at a wide range of welfare programs to reach this number. He includes not only programs like Supplemental Social Security Income and Medicaid but also Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Women, Infant and Children food program, free or subsidized school lunches, food stamps, public housing and rent subsidies. The inclusion of all these programs and of households that “used at least one welfare program” seems to be aimed at coming up with the largest number of immigrants household that have used some form of welfare. It does not seem to try to understand why so many immigrant household use such programs.
Camarota’s report looks at data from 2009 to 2011 to argue that immigrant households’ use of welfare programs in 2012 was not out of the norm. He also points out that “the large share of immigrants with low levels of education and resulting low incomes partly explains their high use rates.” What Camarota is missing from his assessment is the serious effects the Great Recession had on the economic wellbeing of many people. When the recession ended in 2009, a slow and painful recovery followed. In fact, the economy is still recovering from the recession. Low-income households were the hardest hit by the economic downturn and had a more difficult time recovering from the recession. Camarota should count these factors when he looks at why immigrant households use welfare programs. I do not dispute his numbers. I just question the reasons why such a large percentage of immigrant households sought some form of government relief in the 2009-2012 period.
The idea of immigrants coming into the country to suck U.S. natives’ welfare dollars like vampires from a dark, faraway land plays nicely into the hands of those, like Cotton and Perdue, who want to stem the flow of immigrants. This rhetoric was also reinforced by President Trump when he announce his support for the bill in early August. “They are not going to come in,” Trump said about legal immigrants, “and just immediately go and collect welfare. That doesn’t happen under the RAISE Act.”
Robert Farley of FactCheck.org rated the president’s comments as false. He explained that with the exception of “children, pregnant women, refugees, and active duty military or veterans,” current law prohibits new immigrants from collecting “federal means-tested public benefits for five years.” Furthermore, Farley points out that the RAISE Act does “very little, according to experts,” to prevent new immigrants from getting the welfare benefits they can access under the current law.
The bill will reduce the burden immigrants have on welfare budgets, Cotton and Perdue argue, because the immigrants that will gain LPR under the RAISE Act are going to be high-skilled and high-earning, and thus less likely to need welfare. As explained above, however, the proposed system may not attract as many high-skilled immigrants as Cotton and Perdue claim. The bill seems to be designed with the goal of cutting immigration more than helping U.S-born workers or the economy. But, this is only one of the goals of this bill.
The other goal of the RAISE Act is to “seek out people who can integrate into American society most effectively,” as Cotton and Perdue explained in an op-ed on USA Today. Or as President Trump said, the RAISE Act “will help ensure that newcomers to our wonderful country will be assimilated, will succeed and will achieve the American dream.” Helping immigrants succeed and achieve the so-called American dream is an excellent idea. Assimilation, on the other hand, does not sound so great.
Assimilation implies the erasure of any alien cultural trait. It is a process that seeks to grind cultural differences until they disappear and all is left is a semblance of the host culture. Unless an immigrant came as a child, he or she will never shed their native cultural identity. They can learn the language. They can learn how to navigate their new environment. They can learn the norms and conventions of the host society. But, these learned behaviors would never erase their cultural identity. And, we should never expect anyone to do so. We should never expect an Indian to stop being Indian, a Nigerian to stop being Nigerian, or a German to stop being German. Asking immigrants to forget the culture that informed the formative years of their lives, to forget who they are shows absolute ignorance about how cultural identity works.
Furthermore, even the people who can most effectively integrate into U.S. society, as Cotton and Perdue want, would never fully assimilate into the culture. If we think of the immigrants who could most easily assimilate into U.S. society, English and Canadian immigrants may come to mind. However, it is very unlikely that English or Canadian immigrants will forsake their Englishness or Canadian-ness and start thinking, speaking and behaving like a person who grew up in the U.S. It would be like asking a person who grew up in the South living New York City to stop being a Southerner and become a New Yorker, or a New Yorker living in Los Angeles to become an Angeleno. They will always feel that they are not quite like their hosts. They will always have the sense that the host culture is different from theirs. Hoping that foreign immigrants transform themselves into Cotton, Perdue and Trump’s version of the U.S. is an unrealistic expectation.