By Alexander Bolton - 02-12-17 10:30 AM EST
The politics of immigration in the Senate are shifting in the Trump era.
Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), two of President Trump's strongest allies in the Senate, want to dramatically cut the number of green cards issued every year by the United States.
The Raise Act, sponsored by Cotton and Perdue, would cut legal immigration annually over the next decade from 1.05 million (the annual level measured in 2015) to 539,000.
It would prioritize skilled workers and the spouses and minor children of citizens and legal permanent residents over people who want to enter the country based on extended family links.
The sponsors say it would "rebalance" the legal immigration system to bring it more in line with historical averages and increase wages by tightening the labor market.
The Cotton-Perdue bill is a sign of the shifting tides on immigration in the GOP Senate.
Republican have worried that opposition to immigration reform could hurt their party with the nation's growing Latino and Asian populations. But President Trump's victory in the presidential election seemed to offer a different signal.
Proposals to cut down on legal immigration will draw opposition from much of the business community - including Silicon Valley, where for years leaders have called on Washington to increase legal immigration.
And there are opponents in the Senate.
"I oppose the idea of cutting green cards," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight that crafted the 2013 immigration bill. It was approved by the Senate but went nowhere in the House.
Graham says the wave of Baby Boomers expected to retire over the next few years and begin drawing Social Security and Medicare benefits need to be supported by a large workforce.
"When you look at the 20-year demographics we're facing, we'll have an aging population and a declining workforce," he said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned the Cotton-Perdue proposal would stifle innovation.
"I just don't agree with it," he said.
"I think we need more Sergey Brins and people like that who were born outside of this country, came here, received an education and made enormous progress for all of mankind," he added, making reference to the Soviet-born founder of Google.
The question now is whether there is more support in the Senate GOP for the Graham-McCain view of immigration, or whether the Cotton-Perdue side is winning out.
For years there have been signs of a change.
The first big signal came in 2014 when Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), then a little-known challenger, upset former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in a Republican primary.
Trump then shocked the political establishment by winning the 2016 GOP nomination and general election. He campaigned on a populist platform that decried the decline of American wages under pressure from immigration.
The Cotton-Perdue legislation is similar to ideas pushed by former Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an early Trump supporter whose colleagues voted to confirm him last week as attorney general.
During the Senate's immigration debate in 2013, Sessions offered an amendment to cut legal immigration but was outvoted 17 to one.
Sessions is now one of Trump's closest advisors, and his former spokesman, Stephen Miller, is now senior policy advisor to Trump.
Cotton, who is emerging as a leading conservative voice in the chamber, is picking up Sessions's mantel. And it appears he could win more votes now than Sessions did four years ago.
The shifting politics of immigration is reflected by the evolution of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Gang of Eight, who was in charge of selling the 2013 Senate bill to Republican conservatives.
He has gone from being a champion of comprehensive immigration reform legislation to someone who now argues that the reform effort should be broken up into pieces.
McCain, by contrast, has argued that comprehensive reform is still the best way to get needed Democratic votes.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) says he is not enthusiastic about the idea of placing lower caps on the overall number of legal immigrants, including highly skilled workers with H1B visas.
He does, however, like "swapping out some of the family-based visas for skills-based visas.
Rubio spoke the most positively of the Cotton-Perdue bill of the members of the 2013 Gang of Eight.
"As far as the numbers and all that, I don't know there's a magic number. I know the number of immigrants to the United States over the last 30 years is historically high. I'm open about people who think the numbers should be different," he told The Hill.
Republican lawmakers aren't eager for another big debate on immigration, but they may not be able to avoid one.
They expect President Trump to address the 750,000 immigrants who are protected from deportation by President Obama's executive order that set up the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
And Trump urged a bipartisan group of senators he met with at the White House Thursday to continue working on immigration legislation.
"I don't think there's any appetite for a big comprehensive piece, but some of it is going to be visited upon us," Flake said, citing an impending decision on the DACA children.
Graham and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who worked on the Senate immigration bill in 2013, introduced legislation in December to shield them from deportation, but it is not yet scheduled for committee or floor action.