Immigration policy plays to Trump's support base

Critics say proposed Bill's provisions go against the grain of what America stands for

President Donald Trump's proposed new immigration policy, coupled with building his promised wall on the Mexican border, plays directly to his conservative, immigrant-averse support base.

The new Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, or "RAISE" Act, unveiled on Wednesday - which must pass a vote in Congress to become law - would, by 2027, reduce by half the number of immigrants legally admitted into the United States each year, from the current approximate total of one million.

It would do this by prioritising skills over family ties. For example, Green Card holders would be unable to sponsor family members to immigrate unless they have skills deemed necessary to qualify.

Mr Trump was "playing the race card as his ship leaks credibility", wrote international politics professor Inderjeet Parmar of City, University of London, in an e-mail. "This focuses on a core issue that unites like no other his right-wing base."

Launching the Bill, Mr Trump called it the "most significant reform to our immigration system in half a century".

"As a candidate," he said, "I campaigned on creating a merit-based system that protects US workers and taxpayers and that's why we're here today." The changes would "reduce poverty, increase wages and save taxpayers billions and billions of dollars", he said.


But critics and immigration advocacy groups immediately assailed the Bill, saying there are provisions in it which go against the grain of what is considered quintessentially American - for instance, the stipulation that all immigrants must speak English. Waves of immigrants have come to America through history. Many spoke Italian, Polish, German, Mandarin, Japanese and other languages - but not English - when they arrived.

That is just one of the concerns; the other is that the new law will reduce the number of unskilled workers who underpin America's agriculture and service industries and in many ways drive the US economy.

"Trying to limit immigration to this country is bad for the country," Mr Christopher Keeler, an attorney with the firm Grossman Law, told The Straits Times. "This country was built on the backs of immigrants. This would be the opposite of making America great again."

The number of working-age immigrants is projected to increase from 33.9 million in 2015 to 38.5 million by 2035, with new immigrant arrivals accounting for all of that gain. The proposed Bill, if passed, would sharply reduce the 2035 figure.

It immediately triggered rancorous debate and name-calling which is only likely to get worse, and may widen gaps within the Republican Party which is already under some strain over opposing views on healthcare legislation.

In the 2016 presidential election, Mr Trump got some support from immigrant communities opposed to illegal immigration, but his rival Hillary Clinton did better overall, winning 66 per cent of Latino votes. This is not lost on Republicans wary of the Bill mobilising more Latinos to come out to vote in the November 2018 midterm elections.

"This is not a conservative Bill," Mr Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, told NBC News. "I think it's horrible legislation. It will take us back to the years when preference was given to people from northern Europe."

Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told journalists while he may support many provisions in the Bill, his state's dairy industry needed migrant labour. "We really need to take a look at the reality of the situation," he said.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, already a frequent Trump critic, said: "If this proposal were to become law, it would be devastating to our state's economy which relies on this immigrant workforce."

Citing such arguments, many analysts say it is not certain the Bill can become law. "Previous similar Bills have not really moved forward," Mr Keeler told The Straits Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2017, with the headline 'Immigration policy plays to Trump's support base'. Print Edition | Subscribe