WASHINGTON — President Trump embraced legislation on Wednesday that would cut legal immigration to the United States in half within a decade by sharply curtailing the ability of American citizens and legal residents to bring family members into the country.
Arguing that the United States has taken in too many low-skilled immigrants for too long, Mr. Trump invited two Republican senators to the White House to put his weight behind their bill that would judge applicants for legal residency on the basis of education, language ability and job abilities that would benefit the country.
“This competitive application process will favor applicants who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families and demonstrate skills that will contribute to our economy,” Mr. Trump said.
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“This legislation,” he added, “will not only restore our competitive edge in the 21st century, but it will restore the sacred bonds of trust between America and its citizens. This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first.”
The bill, sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, would reduce overall legal immigration by 41 percent in its first year and by 50 percent by its 10th year, according to projections cited by its authors. The reductions would come almost entirely from those brought in through family ties. The number of immigrants granted legal residency on the basis of job skills, about 140,000, would remain roughly the same, though a much higher proportion of the reduced overall number.
The proposal revives an idea that was included in broader immigration legislation supported by President George W. Bush in 2007 but that failed in Congress. Republican supporters argued that it would modernize immigration policy that had not been updated significantly in half a century, but critics in both parties contended it would harm the economy by keeping out workers who filled low-wage jobs that Americans did not want.
Under the current system, most legal immigrants are admitted to the United States based on family ties. American citizens can sponsor spouses, parents and minor children for visas that are not subject to any numerical caps, while siblings and adult children get preferences for a limited number of visas available to them. Legal permanent residents holding green cards can also sponsor spouses and children.
In 2014, 64 percent of more than one million immigrants admitted with legal residency were immediate relatives of American citizens or sponsored by family members. Just 15 percent entered on the basis of employment-based preferences, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent research organization. But that does not mean that those who came in on family ties were necessarily low skilled or uneducated.
The projections cited by the sponsors said legal immigration would decrease to 637,960 after a year and to 539,958 after a decade.
The legislation would establish a system of skills points based on education, English speaking ability, high-paying job offers, age, record of achievement and entrepreneurial initiative. But while it would still allow the spouses and minor children of Americans and legal residents to come in, it would eliminate preference for other relatives, like siblings and adult children. The bill would create a renewable temporary visa for elderly parents who come for caretaking purposes.
The legislation would limit refugees offered permanent residency to 50,000 a year and eliminate a diversity visa lottery that the sponsors said does not promote diversity. The senators said their bill is meant to emulate “merit-based” systems in Canada and Australia.
“Our current system does not work,” Mr. Perdue said. “It keeps America from being competitive.”
Mr. Cotton rejected the notion that the current system was a symbol of American compassion. “It’s a symbol that we’re not committed to working-class Americans and we need to change that,” he said.
But Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, criticized the measure, noting that agriculture is his state’s No. 1 industry and tourism is No. 2. “If this proposal were to become law, it would be devastating to our state’s economy, which relies on this immigrant work force,” he said.
“Hotels, restaurants, golf courses and farmers,” he added, “will tell you this proposal to cut legal immigration in half would put their business in peril.”
Follow Peter Baker on Twitter @peterbakernyt
Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed reporting.
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