WASHINGTON (DTN) -- President Donald Trump on Wednesday endorsed legislation to change the U.S. immigration system and reduce the number of legal immigrants coming into the country, as well as emphasize highly educated immigrants over what are regarded as the low-skilled laborers, which could be interpreted to mean those in agriculture.
Trump hosted Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia at the White House to tout their bill. The Cotton-Perdue bill, which is titled the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act, does not seem to have much chance of enactment as written. Most Democrats and some Republicans will oppose it, particularly in the Senate, but it may start a conversation that could lead to changes in immigration law.
"As a candidate, I campaigned on creating a merit-based immigration system that protects U.S. workers and taxpayers," Trump said. "And that's why we are here today. Merit-based."
The bill does not specifically target the H2A program, which brings in temporary agricultural workers, but the bill would have implications for illegal immigrants who may try to qualify for permanent residency and for the prospect of bringing in workers in the livestock and dairy industries, which need year-round workers.
Agriculture was not mentioned at the White House ceremony. Most farm groups didn't respond to requests for comment immediately after the announcement.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., stated, however, that the Cotton-Perdue bill would hurt industries such as agriculture and tourism.
"I've always supported merit-based immigration. I think we should always want to attract the best and brightest to the United States," Graham said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the other part of this proposal would reduce legal immigration by half, including many immigrants who work legally in our agriculture, tourism and service industries."
Paul Schlegel, the American Farm Bureau Federation official in charge of its immigration portfolio, told DTN that the Cotton-Perdue bill does not address Farm Bureau's priorities of establishing a legal program to bring workers into the United Stets or provide legal status for current undocumented workers.
U.S. farmers rely on undocumented workers because the current system is "broken" and does not provide a system for bringing the workers into the country, he said.
Schlegel added that if the Cotton-Perdue bill were enacted, Farm Bureau would want to be sure farmers' current workers are protected. One of the issues for future policy, Schlegel said, may be how farm work is defined in terms of skill level.
Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, said he had only seen media reports on the bill and White House event, but issued the following statement:
"Any immigration policy proposal needs to take into account the agricultural system's dependence on the highly productive, honorable labor of immigrants, a majority of whom currently lack authorized immigration status. Farm workers possess skills and experience that our economy needs, but many farm workers are living and working under the threat of arrest, deportation and separation of their families. Congress should ensure the stability of the farm labor force and security of our food supply by granting undocumented farm workers the opportunity to earn immigration status and citizenship. Employers should improve wages and working conditions to attract and retain farm workers, and some are doing so. If additional farm workers are needed in the future for our farms and ranches, they should have the opportunity to enter this country as immigrants and the opportunity to become citizens with economic freedom and democratic rights."
Trump noted that he had campaigned on creating a merit-based immigration system, and he said that for too long the U.S. has brought in low-skilled, low-wage workers and that the American holders of low-skill jobs, including minorities, have been "hit the hardest" by this system. Trump added that the bill would reduce poverty.
Cotton said the current immigration system has "put pressure" on U.S. laborers while "we lose out on the most skilled immigrants." Perdue said that most immigrants don't come into the U.S. with high skills and that the new system would be based on the current Canadian and Australian immigration systems, which encourage highly skilled immigrants.
In explaining the bill, Cotton said the current system is an "obsolete disaster" that needs to change.
"Our legal immigration system should accomplish two main goals: One, it should help American workers get a decent pay raise and have a higher standard of living," Cotton said at the White House event. "And, two, it should help promote economic growth to make America more competitive in the world."
Perdue credited Trump for bringing leadership to the issue of immigration. He added that the current system does not help the country remain competitive. Further, Perdue said only one of 15 immigrants comes to the country with employable work skills.
"If we're going to continue as the innovator in the world and the leader economically, it's imperative that our immigration system focus on highly skilled, permanent workers who can add value to our economy and ultimately achieve their own version of the American Dream," Perdue said.
Cotton and Perdue said the RAISE ACT would:
-- Establish a skills-based points system. The RAISE Act would replace the current permanent employment-visa system with a skills-based points system, akin to the systems used by Canada and Australia. The system would prioritize those immigrants who are best positioned to succeed in the U.S. and expand the economy. Applicants earn points based on education, English-language ability, high-paying job offers, age, record of extraordinary achievement, and entrepreneurial initiative.
-- Prioritize immediate family households. The RAISE Act would retain immigration preferences for the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents while eliminating preferences for certain categories of extended and adult family members.
-- Eliminate the outdated diversity visa lottery. The diversity lottery is plagued with fraud, advances no economic or humanitarian interest, and does not even promote diversity. The RAISE Act would eliminate the 50,000 visas arbitrarily allocated to this lottery.
-- Place a responsible limit on permanent residency for refugees. The RAISE Act would limit refugees offered permanent residency to 50,000 per year, in line with a 13-year average.
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