WASHINGTON — Church leaders and Catholic experts on immigration are voicing concerns about the possible impacts of a bill, supported by the Trump administration, that would curb legal immigration into the United States by creating a new skills-based system for entry into the country.
They argue that the proposed system under the “RAISE” Act — which stands for “Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment” — would weaken family bonds, favor the rich over the poor and limit the nation’s ability to take in refugees during global humanitarian crises.
“One of the big concerns for the Church and the USCCB with this legislation is that it drastically cuts, in some ways eliminates, many of the family-based categories in our immigration system,” said Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services.
On Aug. 2, President Donald Trump threw his support behind the RAISE Act, a version of which was introduced in February by U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and David Perdue Jr., R-Georgia. The bill’s sponsors say the legislation would help raise American workers’ wages by restoring legal immigration levels to historic norms and rebalancing the nation’s immigration system toward employment-based visas and granting permanent residence status to legal immigrants’ spouses and minor children.
Speaking in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, the president said he campaigned on creating a merit-based immigration system that protects U.S. workers and taxpayers. He argued that the RAISE Act’s reforms would reduce poverty, increase wages and save billions of taxpayer dollars.
“For decades, the United States was operated and has operated a very low-skilled immigration system, issuing record numbers of green cards to low-wage immigrants. This policy has placed substantial pressure on American workers, taxpayers and community resources,” Trump said.
The bill’s sponsors say the legislation would reduce the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country by 41% within the first year and by 50% in year 10. The underlying argument is that the current immigration system is overly accommodating for unskilled workers, which in turn drives down wages.
Points-Based Merit System
The RAISE Act would install a points-based merit system where potential immigrants would only be allowed entry into the United States after meeting criteria that skew in favor of migrants who are college-educated, have advanced degrees in science and engineering, have been offered salaries well above the nation’s median household income and are able to invest more than $1 million in new business ventures.
The legislation would also limit the number of refugees the United States allows in every year at 50,000. Family categories for green cards would also be capped from about 226,000 presently to 88,000 annually.
“I think it’s important to understand that family-based immigration has always been the cornerstone of our immigration system,” said Feasley, who added that any attempts at immigration reform need to consider both the country’s economy as well as the human needs of people who come to the United States.
Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas, who is also the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, expressed “strong opposition” to the RAISE Act. In a prepared statement, the bishop said the bill imposes a definition of family that weakens family bonds.
“Had this discriminatory legislation been in place generations ago, many of the very people who built and defended this nation would have been excluded,” said Bishop Vásquez, who added that the country should support families instead of throwing up obstacles to their unity.
Along with Democrats, some Republican senators have criticized the RAISE Act. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the legislation would be devastating to his state’s economy that relies on immigrant labor. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, voiced concerns that dairy plants and manufacturers in his state are already struggling to fill job vacancies.
While noting that he believes the RAISE Act is “probably not going anywhere,” James Carafano, an immigration expert at the Heritage Foundation who has studied the issue for more than 15 years, told the Register that the bill at least starts a much-needed national conversation on legal immigration.
“Essentially what we have is a 19th-century immigration system,” Carafano said. “We’re in the 21st century, with a very different economy, very different technology and a very different world. We need a legal immigration system for the 21st century, not for the 19th century.”
Carafano added that he has studied similar merit-based immigration systems in Canada and Australia and found that they have worked quite well in those countries’ advanced economies. Carafano said the United States has, over its history, adapted its immigration system to accommodate the country’s economic needs and desired national character.
And with the United States being a modern advanced economy with “an enormously large social safety net,” Carafano said that bringing in low-skilled workers and their relatives into the country creates more public burdens, even with the potential that those immigrants and their children will eventually become highly skilled and well-paid workers.
“That’s a future promise; but in the short-term, it exacerbates your problem, and we’re showing right now that we’re not moving people up the economic scale,” Carafano said. “Wages are stagnant. We have a welfare system that encourages people not to go to work, an education system that is not preparing well for the economy, and public policies that don’t encourage strong families, all of which are net contributors to the economy.”
Patricia Zapor, the communications director for Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), told the Register that the nation’s immigration laws have changed over time to favor particular nationalities over others, as well as immigrants who spoke English or had certain skills. At times, the nation’s immigration have even flat-out banned certain nationalities, such as the Chinese.
“But as far as we have been able to determine, there has never been a time when — as this legislation proposes — the U.S. has allotted visas using a point system in which employment-based degrees and skills are more valued than family ties and relationships to U.S. citizens,” Zapor said.
“Studies show that although 66% of immigration to the United States is based on family relations, versus only 16% based on employment skills, approximately 41% of those immigrants have college degrees or higher. So there is nothing mutually exclusive with family ties versus employment skills,” Zapor added.
In a draft for a blog he prepared for CLINIC’s webpage and his own diocesan website, Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange, California, who chairs the Catholic Legal Immigration Network’s board of directors, warned that the legislation reflected “nativist and WASP tendencies” that he said are deeply rooted in the United States’ history.
Throughout the country’s history, Bishop Vann wrote, the family has been the cornerstone of national immigration policies.
“Family-based immigrants have contributed much to our economy and innovation, including Silicon Valley companies,” the bishop wrote. “However, the RAISE Act would damage this most fundamental cell of society by limiting the protections heretofore granted to families, for example by limiting green cards for family reunification by almost 50% and restricting them to spouses and children. In other words, an adult child would be unable to sponsor her parents.”
U.S. Bishops’ Goals
Feasley said the bishops’ conference will continue to move forward on championing comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the needs of immigrants and American workers.
Said Feasley, “We have a need for low-skilled and high-skilled workers, and at the same time, we also have a responsibility — the bishops feel very strongly about this — that those individuals who come here should be able to come in humane conditions, that they should be able to be in a situation where they are not unduly separated from their families, and are able to contribute wholly to our economy.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.