Democrats declare new Trump-backed GOP immigration reform 'a non-starter'

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at a press conference on Capitol Hill on Aug. 2, 2017. (SBG)

President Donald Trump backed an effort by two Republican senators Wednesday to reform the nation’s legal immigration system, but the proposal was met with skepticism on Capitol Hill.

"This legislation 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,” Trump said at a White House event promoting the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act. “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’s co-sponsors, Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., joined the president at the event.

"For decades our immigration system has been completely divorced from the needs of our economy, and working Americans' wages have suffered as a result. Our legislation will set things right," Cotton said in a statement. "We will build an immigration system that raises working wages, creates jobs, and gives every American a fair shot at creating wealth, whether your family came over on the Mayflower or just took the oath of citizenship."

The RAISE Act would shift the U.S. toward a more merit-based immigration system in an attempt to ensure that new residents are best equipped to assimilate and thrive. The sponsors say this would function similarly to the systems used in Canada and Australia.

“The system would prioritize those immigrants who are best positioned to succeed in the United States 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,” a summary of the bill explains.

The bill would also retain the existing prioritization of spouses and minor children, but it would eliminate the preference given to extended family and adult relatives. It would end the Diversity Lottery system and place a 50,000-person limit on permanent refugee admissions per year.

At the White House Wednesday, Cotton complained that the current system allows one million new people into the country each year--"like adding the population of Montana every single year"—few of whom are chosen because of their skills.

Touting the success of this approach elsewhere, Perdue said, “It's pro-worker, it's pro-growth and it's been proven to work."

According to Trump, the legislation would help low-skilled American workers who often find themselves competing with these new arrivals for jobs.

However, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., cautioned that manufacturers and dairy plants in his state are already struggling to fill all of their vacancies in the current job market.

“I’m all for merit-based and skills-based immigration, and a legal immigration system,” he said, “but we need to make sure we have an immigration system that allows enough people into this country to make sure that we can staff manufacturers and dairy farms and all of our organizations that grow our economy.”

Democrats had an even colder reaction.

“The bottom line is to cut immigration by half a million people, legal immigration doesn’t make much sense,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “This is different than illegal immigration. This creates jobs in America, it helps America, and we think it’s a non-starter.”

According to Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., taking away the prioritization of family members is the wrong way to go.

“It should be about creating a system that ultimately preserves our history as a nation of immigrants, observes the rule of law, creates opportunities economically,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers argued for a more bipartisan, comprehensive approach to the issue, similar to the legislation that passed in the Senate in 2013 and died in the House.

“What the Senate should do is go back to what it passed in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote just a few years back,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

That bill included border security enhancements without a wall—“which is a waste of money,” Van Hollen added—and an eventual path to legal status.

“It brought people together,” he said.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., also suggested reviving elements of the 1,200 bill that secured 14 Republican votes in the Senate in 2013 but was adamantly opposed by House conservatives.

“I think we came to a place in 2013 where we had a bipartisan 68-vote Senate bill which dealt with a lot of tough issues,” he said, “and if we could reach something that’s reasonably comparable to that, that would be better for everybody.”

With tax reform and budget battles on the horizon and the possible resurrection of a zombie Obamacare repeal bill always looming overhead, the future of the RAISE Act is uncertain, even with the president’s enthusiastic support.

Though he had not yet learned the details of the bill on Wednesday morning, Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., said the Senate already has plenty of big issues on its plate already, but it can make room for immigration reform too if there is an opportunity to get it done.

“My message to my colleagues is we’ve got to stay here and keep working through the recess, so I would add that to the list if it’s coming our way,” Strange said.

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