Early in the fall of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson arrived on Liberty Island to sign one of the most important pieces of legislation of his presidency. In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and surrounded by a bipartisan coalition of members of Congress, President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act and with the stroke of a pen abolished a nearly half-century-old system of quotas that was, in the president’s own words, “un-American in the highest sense.”
Last week, as President Trump and Republican Sens. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Tech groups take aim at Texas Republican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services Debt ceiling fight pits corporate America against Republicans MORE (Ark.) and David Perdue (Ga.) introduced the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment or RAISE Act at the White House, I couldn’t help but think of President Johnson’s condemnation of the cruel system that punished millions of potential immigrants to the United States simply because of who they were and where they were from.
In many ways, the RAISE Act returns us to the dark ages of American immigration policy. If enacted by Congress, this new legislation would cut the number of immigrants entering the United States by half. It would do away with family-based immigration, which reunites thousands of families every year and introduces a points-based system for potential immigrants which is stacked in favor of wealthy, highly-educated, English-speaking applicants. In short, it is the most far-reaching remaking of American immigration policy in more than 50 years.
It is also cruel and wrong-headed.
The RAISE Act’s new proposed points system would close the door to millions of immigrants, mainly from Africa, Asia and especially, Latin America, where access to higher education is often limited to the wealthy few. Technical job skills and English-language proficiency would become almost insurmountable barriers to enter the United States. The flow of legal immigrants into our country would slow to a trickle. And that’s exactly what the bill’s sponsors are hoping for.
You see, while it’s tempting to lay blame for the RAISE Act squarely at the door of the White House, the truth is that this legislation is the culmination of a decades-long effort by anti-immigrant extremists to undo the immigration system created by President Johnson. Indeed the bill’s main sponsor, Cotton, made a national name for himself in 2013 by leading efforts in the House of Representatives to oppose the Comprehensive Immigration Reform project created by the so-called “Gang of Eight.” For Cotton and his partners, the goal of America’s immigration policy shouldn’t be to welcome hard-working immigrants, it is to slam the door shut on them and go back to the racial and ethnic status quo of what our nation used to be. In this way, the RAISE Act is resurrecting an idea that goes back to the 1920s when another Congress, also enthralled by nativism, designed an immigration system that protected the position of “old-stock” European immigrants.
Of course, times have changed, so Cotton and Perdue, and President Trump for that matter, are eschewing any direct connection to race and have instead framed the RAISE Act as immigration reform legislation designed to protect America’s workers. In a stroke of cynical brilliance, they have set up the debate around this bill as one that pits America’s working families against immigrants. In announcing the bill, they argued that it would “spur economic growth and raise working Americans' wages by giving priority to the best-skilled immigrants from around the world.” The politics are clear: one can either side with America’s workers or with immigrants.
Clearly, that’s a false choice. The consensus among most economists is that immigrants have little impact on the wages of American workers. And, as we know from the experience of Latino communities across the country, immigrants not only serve as the backbone of various sectors of the American economy including agriculture, construction and service but they spur economic activity by creating businesses themselves.
The truth is that if these politicians really wanted to improve American workers’ wages, they would prioritize raising the federal minimum wage, supporting pay equity for American women, strengthening our healthcare system, and passing just and sensible immigration reforms.
Hispanic Federation has long argued that America’s immigration system is broken and that it needs to be fixed. But the RAISE Act does little to address real problems such as creating a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in our communities or addressing the backlog of visa applications that keep many immigrants waiting in line for a chance to come to the United States. Instead, the bill punishes immigrants, undermines our economy, and emboldens nativists. We can do better. Democrats and Republicans must oppose the RAISE Act and work on broad immigration reforms that are humane, strengthen our economy, and as President Johnson would surely now say, is American in the highest sense.
José Calderón is President of the Hispanic Federation, the nation’s premier Latino non-profit membership organization.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.