Way back in August, Trump announced his intention to cut legal immigration in half. The bill — the brainchild of Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia — would slash the number of immigrants granted green cards for legal permanent residence each year from the current level of approximately 1 million to 540,000 annually, enacting a points-based system where people with special skills, English fluency, education, high-paying job offers, age, and entrepreneurial drive receive priority.
The plan would continue to allow spouses and minor children of Americans and legal residents to immigrate, but it would eliminate preferences for other relatives like siblings and adult children. Currently, U.S. citizens can petition for their parents to live in the States as green card holders. Under the proposed plan, older adult parents who need to come to the U.S. for caretaking purposes would be eligible for temporary visas.
Trump, Cotton, and Perdue have presented the bill as a way to keep American workers from having to compete with their low-skilled, foreign counterparts.
“This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first,” Trump said at a White House event announcing the proposed legislation.
Supporters of the bill — officially known as the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act — argue that family-based chain migration, which gives preferential treatment to immigration applications from family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, brings too many low-skilled and unskilled workers to the U.S. and negatively affects wages in low-skilled occupations.
“The RAISE Act takes direct aim at this policy, restricting immigration preferences to the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents,” writes the editors of the right-leaning National Review. “That change will mean that our immigration is based more on our economy’s needs than on accidents of birth.”
But the data indicates otherwise.
Research shows that the effect low-skilled immigrants have on the wages of blue-collar, English-speaking American workers is minimal at best.
“What they find is that the size of any effects at all of immigration on wages is really, really, really small and that the few people who do experience negative wage effects are similar immigrants who just arrived a little bit earlier or native-born workers who did not finish high school,” SUNY-Buffalo assistant professor Abigail Cooke told NPR. “But even for these groups, any of the negative effects are really, really tiny on their wages.”
Moreover, Cooke’s research provides evidence that immigrant diversity actually increases wages, generating widespread benefits to both high- and low-paid workers.
While the RAISE Act is a nonstarter for Democrats, it’s also been met with apprehension and scrutiny from members of Trump’s own party. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said it would be “devastating” for his state’s economy, and Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin put it more bluntly: “We need migrant laborers to milk our dairy cows.”
From the border wall to the Muslim ban, an openly hostile attitude toward immigration was a central part of Trump’s campaign, so it’s no surprise that the same sentiment is seeping into his presidency. This plan — coupled with his pardon of ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, who terrorized the Latinx immigrant population in Arizona, and his dismantling of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — solidifies Trump as an anti-immigration president.
I spoke with three women about how the RAISE Act would affect them and why it matters that Trump is coming after legal immigration.
Maya, 40, is a legal resident who plans to apply for U.S. citizenship when she’s eligible in two-and-a-half years. Her husband, who’s from the United Kingdom, was sponsored by his company for a green card, and she was added to his application as a spouse.
“I was very lucky,” Maya said. “If it were up to me alone, I would likely not qualify for an employment-sponsored green card, as it would be virtually impossible to show there were no Americans available to do my job. The financial burden would have probably been too much for my company as well.”
For Maya, the biggest challenge of the legal immigration process was the sheer wait time.
“We were both running out on the maximum of six years on H-1B visas,” Maya said. “Had we not been granted the green cards, we would have had to leave the U.S., never leave the U.S. until the card was processed, or obtain a so-called ‘advanced parole’ document to be able to travel, visit the family, and so forth.”
They waited more than three years for their green cards to be issued. Maya described the process itself as “extremely burdensome.”
“Frankly, a lot of it made no sense,” she said. “There was the medieval medical examination, which was designed to, for example, detect syphilis. We also had to be vaccinated against common communicable diseases, despite providing proof that we were vaccinated in our childhood. This was actually a personally difficult step, as I suffer from an autoimmune disease that is known to flare up with flu shots and vaccinations.”
Maya was told that she could apply for a waiver, but that doing so would further delay the process by at least six months. She opted to take her chances and had the required vaccinations.
Another inconvenient part of the process came after she and her husband were issued the cards but hadn’t yet received the physical documents. They were in Europe for Christmas and upon returning to the States, they indicated the change in their status to the immigration officer.
“We were immediately sent to secondary inspection and spent three or more hours detained, with no easy use of bathroom and no food or water,” Maya said. “We weren’t even allowed to stand up and stretch our legs after a 13-hour flight. It was eye-opening how people from certain countries are treated — the room was full of Latinx, Indian, and Pakistani people.”
Maya said that she disagrees with Trump’s proposal and that it’s made her consider how she’ll take care of her family in the future.
“My parents are in their seventies, and I have to start thinking of having to care for them at some point,” she said. “This proposal would directly affect their ability to relocate here. I doubt the fact that they would be over 80 years old and not trying to ‘take away American jobs’ would have any bearing on their application.”
With her entire family living in Germany, Chris, 32, is also thinking about how the proposal will affect her caretaking abilities.
“It would be nice to have the option to bring, for example, the surviving parent to the U.S. should they be old and need to be taken care of,” Chris said. “I couldn’t afford to give up my career and travel on a regular basis to Germany to take care of them.”
Like Maya, Chris faced several challenges as she worked to legally immigrate to the U.S.
For instance, it was difficult deciding whether to apply for the fiancée visa prior to getting married or whether to get married on a tourist visa and then adjust status in the country of origin. Chris opted for the latter since it made her wedding arrangements easier. With a fiancée visa, applicants are informed when their visa has been processed and must get married within three months of the issuance of that visa, which can present timing obstacles.
“I always felt that the government was suspicious,” Chris said. “They demanded a lot of proof to show that it was a ‘real’ relationship and that I wasn’t just a mail-order bride. Also, nobody really knew about the waiting times and the timeline of the entire process, which makes planning a bit hard.”
While Chris was in the U.S. on a B-2 tourist visa, which meant she could stay in the country for up to six months, she wasn’t allowed to work.
“So that was a bit of a burden on the household budget,” she said.
In total, Chris has spent more than $4,500 on immigration-related fees. She’s currently applying for U.S. citizenship.
Regarding Trump’s proposal, Chris said that she believes the federal government will be even more suspicious against immigrants and that the process will be even harder to prove why and how these individuals want to come to the U.S.
“Trump has already alienated people from the seven Muslim countries that he has banned,” she said. “I believe that they will have an even harder time attempting to legally immigrate to the U.S.”
As a travel specialist, Chris has interacted with people from all walks of life who speak universally about the value of the elusive “American Dream.”
“I have traveled the world, and many people I’ve met believe in the ‘American Dream’ and that they can have a better life if they make it here,” she said. “That dream doesn’t rise or fall with the immigration laws of the administration. Yes, it might be harder to get in now, but the dream itself — that you can reinvent yourself every single day and get something done on your own — won’t die just because Trump doesn’t like immigrants.”
One woman who’s achieved her version of the “American Dream” is Renata, a 34-year-old immigration attorney originally from Brazil. She moved to the U.S. and became a citizen after meeting and marrying her Brazilian-American husband.
“Immigration is a fountain of youth for a country’s economy,” Renata said. “Both from the aspect that individuals have less and less children — thus reducing the number of individuals ready and willing to work — and from the aspect of innovation. Immigrants are starving for a place in the sun.”
Renata is concerned about how Trump’s proposal may alter her plans to bring her family together. Her mother currently lives in Rio de Janeiro, and she’s eager to bring her and her sister to the States.
“Brazil is living a true state of civil war with rampant violence and corruption,” Renata said. “Aside from our desires as a family to spend more time together, I long for her to be in a safer society.”
Renata has filed a petition for her mother so that her mother can then petition for her sister. However, under the RAISE Act, Renata’s sister couldn’t benefit from this legal strategy since she would be an adult, unmarried daughter of a lawful U.S. permanent resident. If approved, the proposal would also prevent Renata from petitioning for her sister’s green card, and her family won’t be able to be together.
“Trump is proposing preposterous solutions to a rather complex issue merely to appease his base without rhyme or reason,” Renata said. “The American immigration system is broken, but this is not the fix we need. Amnesty is a far reality — however, I trust American legislators to propose a solution that will address the needs of millions of second-generation Americans who want to enjoy the company of their family members without feelings of fear every time a family member crosses the inspection line at an airport.”
Mekita Rivas is a multiracial writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. In addition to ROAR, her work has been featured in Bustle, GOOD, Racked, Romper, and Teen Vogue. She holds undergraduate degrees in journalism and English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her current projects include a collection of short stories and a feature film screenplay. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram.