Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia argue the current amount of legal immigration is bloated with low-skilled labor and has contributed to the declining wages of Americans with high school diplomas or less.
"It's pulling the rug out from underneath them, and unless we reverse this trend, we're going to create a near permanent underclass for whom the American dream is always just out of reach," Cotton said at a news conference introducing the bill.
The senators want to roll back legal immigration in a three-pronged approach that aims to cut the number of immigrants by half, to 500,000 annually. They say their plan would not touch visa programs for high-skilled workers.
The targeted bill falls in line with President Donald Trump's blue-collar appeal and "America first" promises. Cotton, a rising Republican star, said he's been in "close contact" with Trump's staff as they've worked on the details of the bill and that he's spoken with Trump about it as recently as Tuesday morning.
"He strongly supports the broad concept of moving legal immigration towards a merit-based system," Cotton said, though he deferred to the White House when asked if this was a bill sanctioned by the President.
It's widely agreed that immigration (legal and illegal) has had an impact on the American economy, but the degree to which it has affected wages has been subject to debate. Globalization and increased technology are also considered major factors.
The bill, "Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act" (RAISE Act), would limit the number of family-based visas so that only spouses and unmarried minor children of citizens and permanent residents can get green cards. Currently the law also allows for parents of citizens, as well as siblings, both married and unmarried children over 21, along with their spouses and minor children.
One exception would be allowed. Elderly parents in need of caretaking would be able to get renewable temporary visas, but the parents would not be allowed to work, receive public benefits, and they would have to show guaranteed support of health insurance by the sponsoring children.
The two senators also want to nix the diversity lottery, which grants 50,000 visas each year to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.
Thirdly, their bill would cap the refugee program at 50,000. According to Pew, the US allowed in 84,995 refugees in the fiscal year which ended in September 2016, the most in any year during the Obama administration.
The senators said they expect to get support among Republicans and some Democrats for their bill and hope to see it on the Senate floor at some point this year.
Their bill, however, could see some intra-party conflict. The US Chamber of Commerce, for example, has been outspoken about the economic benefits of immigration.
When asked about the issue, Randy Johnson, senior vice president of Labor, Immigration, and Employee Benefits for the US Chamber, did not weigh in on the debate over legal immigration, besides saying that it supported "reform."
"The Chamber has long advocated for reforming our immigration system to help our economy grow," Johnson said in a statement. "Immigration is a notoriously complicated issue involving everything from the functioning of the current legal immigration system, to the legalization process, to E-Verify, to border security, to temporary worker programs. The Chamber intends to be involved in these discussions as Congress and the administration tackle these important issues."