Trump aide forcefully defends bid to reduce legal immigration

Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, fields questions from reporters during the daily briefing at the White House.
Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, fields questions from reporters during the daily briefing at the White House. PHOTO: NEWYORKTIMES

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Top White House adviser Stephen Miller defended President Donald Trump's support for legislation that would reduce legal immigration to the US and evaluate visa applications based on merit, calling it a policy that would help low-income and minority Americans gain jobs.

Miller dismissed criticism that the proposed bill would upend the American principle, embodied in a poem etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty, that "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" are welcome in the nation. "The New Colossus," the sonnet by Emma Lazarus, "was added later" and "is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty," Miller told a CNN reporter who asked about it.

The legislation unveiled earlier on Wednesday (Aug 2) by the president would dramatically overhaul the US immigration system. Its prospects are poor in Congress, where many lawmakers, including Republicans, say that low-skill immigrants are welcome and necessary to the economy.

If passed, the bill would lead to a significant decrease in the number of green cards issued to immigrants and eliminate some benefits enjoyed by prospective immigrants with family members already here. Instead, applicants with advanced degrees, particular skills, or job offers would be given preference.


In a combative exchange, Miller called CNN reporter Jim Acosta's suggestion that the Bill would regulate the racial and ethnic makeup of immigrants "outrageous, ignorant, insulting and foolish".

"The notion that you think this is a racist Bill is so wrong and so insulting," Miller said. Acosta didn't call the legislation racist.

Asked by a New York Times reporter to provide statistics supporting Miller's contention that the legislation would improve the economy, Miller instead suggested including a "carve-out in the Bill that says the New York Times can hire all the low-skilled, less-paid workers from other countries".

"Maybe it's time we had compassion for American workers," he said. The Bill would most help black and Latino Americans who are underemployed compared to whites, he said.

The changes would represent the fulfillment of a campaign-trail pledge for the president.  The legislation "will reduce poverty, increase wages and save taxpayers billions and billions of dollars," Trump said in remarks at the White House, where he was flanked by Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, the Bill's sponsors.

The US should "favour applicants who can speak English, demonstrate they can financially support themselves and their families, and demonstrate skills."

Immigration overhauls have long struggled to gain momentum on Capitol Hill, even when lawmakers weren't facing major pushes to raise the nation's borrowing authority, fund the government, and overhaul the tax code.

The ideas offered by Cotton and Perdue have so far gotten little traction among their colleagues. Some lawmakers - including Republicans - argue that low-skilled labourers help stimulate the economy, particularly in sectors like construction and agriculture. They point to decreasing unemployment rates as evidence that on the whole, Americans are able to find the work they want.

"I fear this proposal will not only hurt our agriculture, tourism and service economy in South Carolina, it incentivises more illegal immigration as positions go unfilled," Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said in a statement. "After dealing with this issue for more than a decade, I know that when you restrict legal labour to employers it incentivises cheating."

Business groups have echoed those concerns, saying a reduction in immigration flows could hurt the economy. "Not only do immigrants help grow the economy overall, but immigrants drive up wages for the overwhelming majority of Americans, and significantly so in areas and industries with more immigrants, where wage growth has outpaced the country overall," Todd Schulte, president of the Mark Zuckerberg-backed immigration group, said in a statement.

Immigration advocacy groups say that by prioritising high-skill workers, the extended family members of US citizens will be disadvantaged. So, too, will immigrants looking to escape poverty or violence.

To that end, the legislation also would cap annual refugee admissions to just 50,000 per year, fewer than half the total Barack Obama set for his final year in office amid the migration crisis in the Middle East. It also would eliminate the Diversity Immigrant Visa lottery, which aims to diversify the immigrant population by opening up visas to countries with low immigration rates.

But the senators hope that, with Trump's support, their proposals can gain steam.  The president's push on immigration was one of the tent poles of his successful campaign, and is thought to have helped motivate white, working-class voters to propel his upset victories in Midwestern states that had voted for Barack Obama.

Even if the legislation proves to be dead on arrival, its introduction - and Miller's cable-ready defence - could fire up his political base. Trump has frequently referenced his effort to curtail immigration on the campaign trail, including last week during a campaign rally in Youngstown, Ohio.

As he concluded his turn at the White House briefing room podium, Miller grinned and turned to press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who chuckled through some of his more heated exchanges with reporters.

"I think that went exactly as planned," Miller said.