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S. 354: RAISE Act

Amid all the discussion and debate about whether and how to combat undocumented immigrants, some senators have proposed significantly reducing several rarely-discussed provisions of U.S. policy that encourage legal immigration. In addition to directly affecting millions of legal residents, this bill could affect the entire U.S. economy and demographic structure. This could give it a greater, albeit less quotable, impact than “Build the wall and make Mexico pay for it.”

What the bill does

Introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, labeled S. 354, would institute several major changes to the American immigration system. Among them:

  • Ending the Diversity Visa Program. The program run by the State Department grants an additional 50,000 legal permanent resident visas each year from countries with low rates of U.S. immigration. Competition is fierce, with 9.3 million applicants in 2015, for an 0.3 percent acceptance rate.
  • Reduce the number of family-sponsored immigrants. Currently, U.S. citizens and permanent residents can “sponsor” other family members for citizenships, such as adult children, parents, siblings, and fiancé. The bill would retain only two categories for sponsorship: spouses and unmarried minor children.
  • Limit U.S. acceptance of refugees. The number of refugees around the world offered U.S. permanent residency would be capped at 50,000. Last year the U.S. accepted 84,995 refugees, led by those from Congo, Syria, Burma, and Iraq. The last year in which the U.S. accepted fewer than 50,000 refugees was 2007.

What supporters say

Supporters argue the bill adds a needed bulwark against foreigners who depress American jobs and wages.

“It’s time our immigration system started working for American workers,” Senate lead sponsor Cotton said in a press release. “The RAISE Act would promote higher wages on which all working Americans can build a future-whether your family came over here on the Mayflower or you just took the oath of citizenship.”

“This policy would resemble the immigration systems of Canada and Australia, countries with similar advanced economies,” Cotton wrote in aNew York Times op-ed. “While our system gives priority to reuniting extended families and low-skilled labor, their systems prize nuclear-family reunification and attributes like language skills, education and work experience.”

Cotton’s press release claimed the bill would decrease legal immigrants by 39.3 percent in its first year, and 48.6 percent in its first decade. Those estimates should be taken with a grain of salt since they did come from the bill’s sponsor, though there’s no doubt the bill would decrease legal immigration by some number.

What opponents say

Opponents call the bill a nativist and xenophobic attempt to keep out foreigners, including many who would benefit the U.S. Of course most Democrats oppose it, but skepticism also comes from more conservative quarters.

“Cutting legal immigration won’t help low-skilled workers,” conservative Alex Nowrasteh wrote for the Cato Institute. “A recent paper by economists Michael Clemens, Ethan Lewis, and Hannah Postel seems tailor-made to test what would happen if a bill like the RAISE Act were to become law…. Senators Cotton and Perdue will be disappointed to discover that this new research found that ending lower-skilled migration for farm workers had little measurable effect on the labor market for Americans who worked in those occupations.”

Referring to a similar bill that passed in 1964 and affected the farm industry, Nowrasteh writes, “Instead of hiring more American workers or raising their wages, farmers turned to machines and altered the crops they planted to take account of the new dearth of workers. Instead of planting crops that required labor-intensive harvesting or care, they planted other crops that required many fewer workers.”

Odds of passage

The bill, labelled S. 354 in the Senate, has attracted one cosponsor so far: Sen. David Purdue (R-GA). It awaits a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Last updated Mar 13, 2017. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Feb 13, 2017.


Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act or the RAISE Act

This bill amends the Immigration and Nationality Act to eliminate the diversity immigrant visa category.

The fiscal year limit for refugee admissions is set at 50,000.

The President shall annually enumerate the previous year's number of asylees.

The bill defines: (1) "immediate relative" as the under-21 year old child or spouse of a U.S. citizen, and (2) "family-sponsored immigrant" as the under-21 year old child or spouse of an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence.

The worldwide fiscal year level for family-sponsored immigrants is reduced.

The bill establishes a nonimmigrant alien W-visa for the parent of an adult (at least 21 years old) U.S. citizen.