Politics & Policy

The RAISE Act: A Good Start on Immigration

U.S. flags at a naturalization ceremony in Oakland, Calif., in 2013 (Reuters photo: Robert Galbraith)

Previous legislative efforts to “fix” our immigration system have been based on the assumption that we need to have much higher levels of immigration because . . . well, the sponsors have never really gotten around to explaining that part. The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, introduced today by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and Georgia senator David Perdue, is different. It is a carefully crafted, albeit limited, bill that would sharpen America’s immigration system so that it serves the American economy.

In 2015, the same year that President Barack Obama lawlessly granted amnesty to upward of 5 million illegal immigrants, the United States granted green cards to more than 1 million legal immigrants. Only a fraction were for high-skilled work. Nearly seven in ten were given to relatives of current U.S. citizens or green-card holders (officially, “legal permanent residents”). Family-based chain migration, under which the U.S. gives preferential treatment to immigration applications from the kin of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, is a key source of the large-scale immigration of low-skilled and unskilled workers that is exerting downward pressure on wages in low-skill occupations. This humane-sounding policy has become so broad as to encompass not only the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and green-card holders, but their adult parents, siblings, and children (married and unmarried), as well as legal permanent residents’ unmarried adult children. The RAISE Act takes direct aim at this policy, restricting immigration preferences to the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.

That change will mean that our immigration is based more on our economy’s needs than on accidents of birth. It will also do what immigration advocates suggest (questionably) that our generous immigration system already does: refresh America’s demographics with an infusion of youth. In fact, because of the number of adults let in under family-based chain-migration policies, current immigrant populations slant older than advocates of high immigration levels generally let on.

The Cotton and Perdue bill makes one right-minded exception: for elderly parents, who often end up in need of caretaking. For them, the bill creates a renewable temporary visa. The visa is not, however, a rubber stamp. It prohibits the visa-holders from accessing public benefits, and their children must demonstrate that they will provide completely for their parents’ health-care needs.

The bill has two other key provisions that immigration hawks will like. The first addresses the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which makes 50,000 visas available annually to entrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. The “diversity lottery” serves no clear economic or humanitarian aims, and it doesn’t promote any substantive diversity. The RAISE Act would end the program.

Second, the RAISE Act would cap the number of green cards available annually for refugees at 50,000 per year. The number of refugees who became permanent residents ballooned to nearly 120,000 in 2015, and the RAISE Act would bring that number back to near the average of the Bush/Obama era.

The proposals in the RAISE Act ought to be key elements of any conservative immigration agenda.

Democrats are likely to balk at the bill, much as they balk at any robust effort to tighten our immigration laws. But a number of them have previously signed on to paring back family-preference categories, and they have also backed ending the diversity-visa lottery. Declaring this bill inhumane, as Democrats are likely to do, will require disappearing some of their own past votes.

Obviously, the bill is not a fix-all. The H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers needs a hard look, for example, and Congress could do a great deal to add muscle to President Trump’s proposed illegal-immigration crackdown. While other legislation should address those issues, the proposals in the RAISE Act ought to be key elements of any conservative immigration agenda. The senators’ Republican colleagues should follow their lead on this issue.


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