Jewish refugees aboard the 'SS St Louis' attempt to communicate with friends and relatives in Cuba, who were permitted to approach the docked vessel in small boats. The passengers were not allowed to disembark.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The RAISE Act takes the wrong approach to immigration.

By Susan Martin
August 4, 2017

Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and David Perdue (Ga.), with the endorsement of the White House, released the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act on Wednesday. If passed, the bill would make deep cuts in legal immigration and substantial changes in the categories under which immigrants are admitted to the U.S.

Some supporters of the bill have cited the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform—often called the Jordan Commission after Barbara Jordan, its chair—as justification for the legislation. That could not be further from the truth. As the executive director of the commission, I can attest to the fundamental differences between the RAISE Act and our recommendations.

In its first report to Congress, the commission concluded that “legal immigration has strengthened and can continue to strengthen this country.” Its recommendations sought to improve the admission process by ensuring timely entry of immediate family of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents (LPRs), as well as timely entry of workers and refugees.

The commission’s approach was considerably at odds with the RAISE Act in three major areas. First, the RAISE Act would lead to a deep cut in the overall number of family visas. The Jordan Commission recommended adding 150,000 visas per year to eliminate what had been a large backlog in admission of LPR families. It held that the visas earmarked for adult children and siblings of U.S. citizen LPRs, as well as the diversity program, should be transferred to ensuring that spouses and minor children be admitted more expeditiously. Unlike the RAISE Act, the commission recommended continued admission of parents of U.S. citizens as LPRs. Also unlike the new legislation, the commission saw family formation—that is the immediate admission of newlywed spouses of U.S. citizens and LPRs—to be an admission priority, fully in the national interest of the country.

Second, the RAISE Act would impose a hard ceiling on refugee admissions, allowing a maximum of 50,000 visas per year. The commission recommended a floor on admissions of 50,000, stating that foreign policy and humanitarian imperatives necessitated that the U.S. take a strong leadership role in assisting and protecting refugees worldwide. The commission saw resettlement of refugees as one of the core durable solutions to refugee crises and believed America should lead by example. It believed that consultations with Congress, as specified in the Refugee Act of 1980, would be an effective mechanism for increasing admissions beyond the 50,000 floor when necessary. Indeed, the commission recommended that the president have even greater authority to raise the ceiling on admissions in the case of the type of refugee emergencies experienced worldwide today.

The commission was cognizant of the dire consequences of the inflexibility of U.S. refugee policies in the 1930s when the government rejected thousands of Jewish and other refugees from Nazi Germany who subsequently died in the Holocaust. The RAISE Act would bring back those dark days with a hard ceiling on refugee admissions even when crises require flexibility.

The RAISE Act also makes significant changes in employment-based admissions, shifting from a demand system, in which employers petition for workers, to a supply system, in which workers are chosen through a point system. The commission, by contrast, explicitly rejected a point system: “We considered alternative frameworks, particularly a point system, but rejected these approaches. We believe that a system that relies on formulas and bureaucratic procedures for determining which immigrants meet the ability criteria for admission is not as effective in serving the national interest as one that relies on the judgement of American families and employers within a framework that protects U.S. workers from unfair competition.”

The RAISE Act ignores one of the most important recommendations that the commission made on legal admissions. The commission believed strongly that admission numbers and priorities should not be set in stone, as has been the case since the last major reform took place in 1990. Rather, it recommended that Congress should revisit admission numbers and categories every three to five years to ensure they still met national interests. Proposals by other blue ribbon panels would do the same thing, including through a standing commission that would assess needs and increase or reduce admissions in accordance with current economic conditions. The RAISE Act would trap the country into admission ceilings that may be completely inappropriate in the years ahead.

In conclusion, the RAISE Act would weaken the U.S. by placing irresponsible constraints on family reunification, refugee admissions, and employment-based admissions. It is the opposite of the Jordan Commission’s call for legal admissions in the national interest and should be soundly rejected.

Susan F. Martin is the Donald G. Herzberg professor of international migration emerita at Georgetown University.

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