Trump backs GOP plan to push legal immigration changes

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FILE: President Donald Trump listens as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 16, 2017. FILE: President Donald Trump listens as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 16, 2017.

By KEN THOMAS and JILL COLVIN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Donald Trump on Wednesday embraced legislation from two Republican senators that would place new limits on legal immigration and seek to create a system based more on merit and skills than family ties.

Trump joined with Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas to trumpet the bill, which has so far gained little traction in the Senate. The president said if approved the measure would represent "the most significant reform to our immigration system in half a century."

The president 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.

The bill's supporters, meanwhile, say it would make the U.S. more competitive, raise wages and create jobs.

Perdue and Cotton's legislation would replace the current process for obtaining legal permanent residency, or green cards, creating a skills-base point system for employment visas. The bill would also eliminate the preference for U.S. residents' extended and adult family members, while maintaining priority for their spouses and minor children.

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 or low-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.

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 Charles Schumer of New York, who called it a "nonstarter."

The bill would create a new points-based system for applicants seeking to become legal permanent residents, favoring those who can speak English, have high-paying job offers, can 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 for a period of time 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.

Some immigrant advocates have 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.

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."

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Associated Press writers Josh Boak, Erica Werner and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.

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Follow Ken Thomas at http://twitter.com/kthomasDC and Jill Colvin at http://twitter.com/@colvinj

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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