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Trump Pushes To Reduce Legal Immigration


Every year, the United States welcomes about a million new immigrants, issuing green cards that grant permanent resident status. President Trump wants to cut that number in half. He threw his support today behind a controversial bill that would dramatically reduce legal immigration to the U.S. while also changing the criteria for deciding who is allowed in. NPR's Scott Horsley has our report.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Trump is calling for the most significant shakeup in U.S. immigration policy in more than half a century. Along with his crackdown on illegal border crossings, the president wants to curb the flow of legal immigration while also making permanent a cap on refugees.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first.

HORSLEY: The bill would cut by half the number of green cards issued each year. And rather than giving priority to extended family members like the current system, immigrants with advanced education or other qualifications would go to the head of the line.


TRUMP: 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.

HORSLEY: Trump was flanked in the White House Roosevelt Room by Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, who wrote the proposal. Cotton says the existing immigration system has opened the door to too many low-skilled workers, creating unwelcome competition for native-born Americans, especially those with a high school degree or less.


TOM COTTON: It puts great downward pressure on people who work with their hands and work on their feet. Now, for some people, they may think that that's a symbol of America's virtue and generosity. I think it's a symbol that we're not committed to working-class Americans.

HORSLEY: Cotton and Perdue say their plan is modeled on skills-based immigration systems in Canada and Australia. The plan has already drawn criticism from some of their fellow Republicans and has little chance of passing but is likely to be popular with many Trump voters. Political analyst Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution suspects many blue-collar voters who backed Trump last year did so largely out of concern with a growing immigrant population.

BILL GALSTON: I think the evidence will probably sustain the conclusion that immigration was the single most influential issue in the 2016 presidential election.

HORSLEY: Galston is skeptical that curbing immigration would automatically boost wages for native-born workers. But he says Trump successfully tapped into a cultural anxiety that many of those workers feel. Galston, who worked in the Clinton White House, says Democrats and other critics of the immigration crackdown ignore those feelings at their peril.

GALSTON: In democratic countries, popular sentiments are facts that need to be reckoned with by leaders. And if we think that this is simply an economic issue, then we're going to be blindsided over and over again.

HORSLEY: The president's support for the bill represents a victory for the ethnonationalist wing in the White House led by advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. At a testy press briefing this afternoon, CNN's Jim Acosta challenged Miller to reconcile the bill's preference for English-speaking immigrants with a promise at the base of the Statue of Liberty.


JIM ACOSTA: Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?

STEPHEN MILLER: That is one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant and foolish things you've ever said. The notion that you think that this is a racist bill is so wrong and so insulting. The reality is - is that the foreign-born population into our country has quadrupled since 1970.

HORSLEY: That's true, but as historian Erika Lee of the University of Minnesota points out, 1970 was hardly a typical year.

ERIKA LEE: Some lawmakers consider that a historic norm. It is actually a period that is exceptional in our nation of immigration.

HORSLEY: After a half century of restrictive immigration policies, less than 5 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born in 1970. Today, that figure is closer to 15 percent, about what it was when the Statue of Liberty opened in 1886. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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