The proposed immigration overhaul touted by President Donald Trump on Wednesday, which would cut the number of legal immigrants and create a system based more on skills than family ties, has gained little traction in the U.S. Senate and drew quick criticism from South Carolina’s Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“SC #1 industry is Ag,” Graham tweeted. “Tourism #2. If proposal were to become law…devastating to SC economy which relies on this immigrant workforce.”
The legislation was proposed by two Republican senators, David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who appeared with the president at the White House when the proposed policy changes were announced.
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But the Senate has largely ignored the measure, with no other lawmaker signing on as a co-sponsor. GOP leaders have showed no inclination to vote on immigration this year, and Democrats quickly dismissed it.
"The bottom line is, to cut immigration by half a million people, legal immigration, doesn't make much sense," said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who called it a "nonstarter."
Graham tweeted that he supported merit-based immigration, and thought the country should always want to attract the best and the brightest.
“Unfortunately other part of proposal reduces legal immigration by half including many immigrants who work legally in Ag, tourism, & service,” he wrote.
Some immigrant advocates also criticized the proposal, saying that slashing legal immigration would hurt industries like agriculture and harm the economy.
"Our system is broken, but the response should be to modernize it, not take a sledgehammer to it," said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of New American Economy, a group of business leaders, mayors and others backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform.
Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy for the Center for Migration Studies, said the legislation would reduce the number of immigrants from African and Asian countries.
“It’s a bill that’s really driven ideologically rather than based on economic trends,” he said.
The president said if approved the measure would represent "the most significant reform to our immigration system in half a century."
Trump has made cracking down on illegal immigration a hallmark of his administration and has tried to slash federal grants for cities that refuse to comply with federal efforts to detain and deport those living in the country illegally.
But he has also vowed to make changes to the legal immigration system, arguing that immigrants compete with Americans for much-needed jobs and drive wages down.
Most economists dispute the president's argument, noting that immigration in recent decades doesn't appear to have meaningfully hurt wages in the long run. Increased immigration is also associated with faster growth because the country is adding workers, so restricting the number of immigrants could slow the economy's potential to expand.
Trump's public support of the bill puts him at the center of efforts to make changes to the legal immigration system, with a focus on a skills-based system that the bill's supporters say would make the U.S. more competitive, raise wages and create jobs.
Perdue and Cotton introduced the legislation in February. It would change the 1965 law to reduce the number of legal immigrants, limiting the number of people able to obtain green cards to join families already in the United States.
The bill would also aim to slash the number of refugees in half and eliminate a program that provides visas to countries with low rates of immigration.
Cotton told reporters the bill would double the number of green cards available to high-skilled workers and would not affect other high-skilled worker visa programs such as H1-B and H2-B visas. The Trump Organization has asked for dozens of H-2B visas for foreign workers at two of Trump's private clubs in Florida, including his Mar-a-Lago resort.
The White House said that only 1 in 15 immigrants comes to the U.S. because of their skills, and the current system fails to place a priority on highly skilled immigrants.
The bill would create a new points-based system for applicants seeking to become legal permanent residents, or green card holders, favoring those who can speak English, financially support themselves and offer skills that would contribute to the U.S. economy. A little more than 1 million green cards were issued in 2015.
In a nod to his outreach to blue-collar workers during the campaign, Trump said the measure would prevent new immigrants from collecting welfare and help U.S. workers by reducing the number of unskilled laborers entering the U.S.
"This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and puts America first," Trump said during an event in the White House's Roosevelt Room.
But the president is mischaracterizing many of the immigrants coming to the United States as low-skilled and dependent on government aid. The Pew Research Center said in 2015 that 41 percent of immigrants who had arrived in the past five years held a college degree, much higher than the 30 percent of non-immigrants in the United States. A stunning 18 percent held an advanced degree, also much higher than the U.S. average.
During a much-hyped speech last August in Phoenix, Trump talked tough on illegal immigration — warning that "no one" who entered the country illegally would be safe from deportation.
Lost in the bluster was a vow to reform the legal immigration system "to serve the best interests of America and its workers."
"Within just a few years immigration as a share of national population is set to break all historical records," he said at the time, arguing that immigration levels should be kept within "historical norms" as a share of population and that immigrants should be selected based on their likelihood of success in the U.S. society, based on merit, skill and proficiency.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement the bill would "end programs known to be rife with fraud and abuse and finally improve the vetting process, making our country--and working-class wages--much safer and stronger."
Robbins, of the New American Economy, said that if the number of legal immigrants were cut, many industries would have trouble finding the workers that they needed. Agriculture, health care, manufacturing and the technology and hospitality industries would all contract, hurting American workers, he said. Immigrants with their diverse skills help the economy remain flexible, he said.
"Right now immigration is a huge economic driver of growth for America," he said. "Our immigration system is broken. It definitely needs to be fixed, but it needs to be fixed in a way that grows the economy not one that’s going to harm it."
Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy for the Center for Migration Studies, said that the American economy needed all skill levels to perform well. In addition, the American population is aging and not replacing itself. Immigrant workers will fill those gaps, he said.
"I'm not saying that the system doesn’t need to be reformed to some degree, but this is the wrong way to go about it," he said. "They’re trying to eliminate anyone who isn’t highly educated and speaks English perfectly."
Noreen O'Donnell contributed to this report.