Last week, when Donald Trump publicly endorsed the raise Act, a bill that would drastically curb legal immigration to the United States, he did what immigration hard-liners had waited more than two decades for a President to do. The bill, whose acronym is short for Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment, was introduced in February by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, both Republicans, but it hadn’t attracted much attention until Trump took up its mantle. “This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first,” Trump said at a White House press conference. “Our people, our citizens, and our workers,” he went on, have struggled while “competing for jobs against brand-new arrivals.”
While Trump made combating illegal immigration a cornerstone of his Presidential campaign, he also pledged to limit legal immigration. It’s this side of the issue that’s addressed in the raise Act. If it becomes law, it would cut the number of legal permanent residents allowed into the country each year from a million to five hundred thousand, mainly by limiting the number of foreign family members that current residents are allowed to sponsor. Family unity has been one of the core principles of the U.S.’s immigration system since the nineteen-sixties—anyone with a green card is allowed to sponsor extended family members, like siblings, grandparents, and adult children—but the raiseAct would cap the number of green cards allocated to family sponsors, and eliminate family sponsorship beyond spouses and minor children. The bill would also implement a point system that would rank applicants seeking to come to the U.S. for work—about a hundred and fifty thousand such people come to the U.S. every year—and give an advantage to immigrants who already speak English.
Proposals to cut legal immigration aren’t exactly new in Washington. When comprehensive immigration-reform bills were debated in 2006, 2007, and 2013, conservative lawmakers briefly and unsuccessfully pushed to include similar measures. But the last time a plan to cut legal immigration received the kind of attention currently enjoyed by the raise Act was 1996. Then, as now, Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress. Lamar Smith, a congressman from Texas, was the primary force behind a set of sweeping reforms to both legal and illegal immigration. But his effort to cut legal immigration failed: a majority of Senate Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, and a third of House Republicans voted against it. Congress then passed an elaborate system of penalties and enforcement measures for illegal immigration that became the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. That bill, which was signed by President Bill Clinton, laid the groundwork for the system of mass deportation that’s in effect today.
Questioning legal immigration hasn’t been an exclusively conservative position, however. “Today the Democratic Party is seen as being completely in the pro-immigration column, and the Republican Party as being in the anti-immigrant column,” Muzaffar Chishti, an immigration expert at the Migration Policy Institute, told me. “But it wasn’t always that way.” In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, Democrats, channelling the concerns of organized labor, considered low-skilled immigrants a threat to wages and jobs. Their rhetoric then sounded like Trump’s last week. But as Democrats began to feel that their political future depended on a growing population of Hispanic voters, their message changed. The early two-thousands were littered with mea culpas and about-faces from prominent Democrats who, just years before, had taken strong stances against immigration. In 2006, for example, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, who in 1993 introduced a bill to eliminate birthright citizenship, issued a dramatic apology on the Senate floor. Then, in 2010, he excoriated Republicans for advancing a birthright citizenship measure of their own.
And while mainstream members of the Republican Party were once more aligned with pro-business conservatives, who were sanguine about the economic advantages of immigrant workers, a more strident wing—epitomized by Smith and Jeff Sessions, who left the Senate to become the Attorney General—began pushing a more general anti-immigrant line that, decades later, has won out in the Trump Administration. “Now that the Administration has increased immigration enforcement, it’s turning to legal immigration,” Chishti told me. “This is completely out of the Sessions playbook. It did not begin with Trump.” This playbook is literal: in 2015, Sessions and his staff produced a twenty-three-page document called “Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority.” It anatomized how the federal government was failing to enforce immigration laws, and how immigration was causing wages to stagnate and unemployment to persist. Many of these ideas were included in the Republican Party’s platform last year, which, for the first time in the Party’s history, called for an explicit reduction in legal immigration. For anti-immigration stalwarts, it was Sessions’s involvement in Trump’s campaign that won their support. “Sessions was Trump’s Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Mark Krikorian, the head of the influential anti-immigration think tank Center for Immigration Studies, told me. “Sure, Trump is not a real conservative and he’s a little bit unusual, but he’s got Sessions.”
It’s unlikely that the raise Act will become law—even today, many Republicans in Congress would likely vote against it. (Some, like Lindsey Graham, have already publicly criticized it.) But in Trump, nativist activists and lawmakers finally have someone in the White House who speaks their language. “For the first time ever, a President has sought a reduction in legal immigration,” Chishti told me. “Even when Congress has been hostile to immigration, the President has always stood on the other side of the issue. This is from Wilson to Truman; it was true of Kennedy and Johnson and Reagan, all the way to George W. Bush and Obama. There have been no exceptions—until now.”