By MARSHA MERCER
In the White House briefing room, a senior White House aide lectured on the Statue of Liberty.
The statue is a “symbol of American liberty lighting the world,” senior policy adviser Stephen Miller said Wednesday. Welcoming immigrants was only an afterthought, he suggested.
“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the base, with its line about “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” was added later, he said.
Miller was right about the timing, but why make that historical footnote now? Because President Donald Trump intends to set the United States on a new path regarding immigration. He wants to halve legal immigration over a decade.
“Very, very important, Trump said of the proposal. “Biggest change in 50 years.”
Trump sees his America First ideology in conflict with America’s traditional role as beacon to the world’s persecuted and downtrodden.
The RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment) Act would slash the number of green cards to about 500,000 annually and change the face of immigration. Green card holders are lawful permanent residents who can live in the country permanently and serve in the military.
The current system prizes family unification; people who are kin to citizens get top priority. The new system would prioritize green cards for English speakers, people who can support themselves financially and have job skills.
Miller emphasized most voters support such changes. To be sure, Trump’s pledges to curb illegal immigration were central to his election. But this bill goes a step farther.
Now, legal immigration is also on the chopping block, as it has been at various points in history.
But legal immigration should not be an us-versus-them issue in the 21st century. We rightly celebrate hard-working legal immigrants who follow the rules. We need immigrants to keep our economy humming.
Democrats on Capitol Hill declared the bill a nonstarter. Two Republican senators – Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona – drenched the proposal in cold water.
Graham said it would hurt his state’s agriculture, tourism and service industries. McCain told reporters he “wasn’t interested.” Why? “Because I’m not interested.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued the bill would hurt the economy.
“Dramatically reducing overall immigration levels won’t raise the standard of living for Americans,” said Randy Johnson, a senior vice president at the chamber.
“In fact it will likely accomplish the opposite, making it harder for businesses, communities, and our overall economy to grow, prosper and create jobs for American workers,” Johnson said.
The bill proposed by two Southern Republicans, Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, has undeniable political appeal in Trump country. But it’s helpful to think about what the RAISE bill is not.
It is not comprehensive immigration reform. It does not address the 11 million people who entered the country illegally or guest workers or border security or deporting “bad hombres,” in Trump’s phrase.
This is not 1986, when Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the bipartisan Immigration Reform and Control Act.
Trump is not Reagan, who said: “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”
Reagan understood that society can’t prosper with “a class of individuals who must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society.”
The 1986 law -- called Simpson-Mazzoli for sponsors Sen. Alan Simpson, Republican of Wyoming, and Rep. Romano Mazzoli, Democrat of Kentucky – promised a path to legalization – amnesty -- for millions of undocumented immigrants in return for
cracking down on illegal immigration.
The law is now widely viewed as a failure. Nearly 3 million illegal immigrants did come out of the shadows, but the border remained porous. To pass the bill, Congress jettisoned key enforcement provisions, including penalizing employers who hired workers here illegally.
Thirty-one years later, a new president wants to remake immigration. Surely we can do better this time around – without halving legal immigration. Curb illegal immigration, yes, while affirming America’s role as a beacon to the world, while helping our citizens prosper. Our future demands no less.
© 2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.