‘Snowball’s chance in hell’ of US immigration bill passing

Q&A: What changes have been proposed to US immigration system?

Legal immigration into the US may be reduced by as much as half if new legislation, proposed by two senators and endorsed by president Donald Trump, passes through Congress. But how could such a dramatic reduction be achieved? And is the bill likely to pass?

What is the bill?

The Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) bill was introduced on August 2nd by Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia. It aims to "spur economic growth and raise working Americans' wages by giving priority to the best-skilled immigrants from around the world, and reducing overall immigration by half".

What do they want to change?

About one million immigrants come to live in the US legally every year. The bill proposes to reduce this to 637,960 in the first 12 months, and 539,958 after a decade, by a number of means:

Eliminating the Diversity Visa Programme: 50,000 green cards are currently allocated every year through the Diversity Visa lottery system, granting permanent residency to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the US. The bill proposes to abolish this programme.


Limiting refugees: The number of refugees granted permanent visas would be capped at 50,000 per year.

Tightening family visa restrictions: About two-thirds of all legal immigrants get visas based on family ties. US residents can sponsor an unlimited number of spouses, parents and minor children (under-18), and a limited number of siblings and adult children. Under the proposed Act, spouses and minor children will still be given preference, but extended family and grown adult relatives would be excluded. These changes will lead to the greatest overall reduction in legal immigration.

Introducing a points-based system: The existing employment-based immigration system would be replaced.

- Points would be allocated based on education, English-language proficiency, job offers, age, “record of extraordinary achievement”, and entrepreneurial initiative.

- Applicants need at least 30 points to qualify.

- The highest scorers selected twice a year by US Citizen and Immigration Services to file full applications and undergo a security check.

- Immigrants would not be eligible for federal means-tested benefits for five years.

The senators claim their proposed points-based system is similar to those used in Australia and Canada.

What has Trump said about the bill?

Endorsing the proposed legislation, Trump said: “This legislation will not only restore our competitive edge in the 21st century, but it will restore the sacred bonds of trust between America and its citizens. This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first.”

Are all Republicans in favour?

No. Senator Lindesey Graham of South Carolina, for example, claims the agriculture and tourism industries in his state, which rely on an immigrant workforce, would be devastated by such a law. "Hotels, restaurants, golf courses and farmers," he said, "will tell you this proposal to cut legal immigration in half would put their business in peril."

Other critics say it will lead to labour shortages, especially in low-wage industries, putting economic growth in jeopardy. The National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group, say the US is already facing a workforce gap of 7.5 million jobs by 2020.

How likely is the bill to pass?

Not very. Republicans hold 52 seats in the Senate, but 60 votes are needed to pass the bill, meaning they need to draw at least eight Democrats or independents over to their side.

"I don't think it has a snowball's chance in hell of becoming law," says Boston-based immigration attorney John Foley, whose four grandparents were from Co Galway. "Anything that reduces legal immigration by 50 per cent is of significant concern. But that is tempered by the fact that no one thinks it is going to happen."

How could the Irish be affected?

The proposals have been labelled as "racist" by some critics, including leading Irish-American immigration campaigner Bruce Morrison. "Those who fall under the poem on the front of the Statue of Liberty will be most affected by this, the 'huddled masses' who don't have any money or college degrees," Foley says. "In theory, it could actually help the Irish because they bring forward a population that is well educated and well trained and hard working. But this is not a solution."

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny, founding editor of Irish Times Abroad, a section for Irish-connected people around the world, is Editor of the Irish Times Magazine