7 senators are sponsoring Trump’s immigration bill. Only 1 defended what it actually does.
Seven Republicans are sponsoring an immigration proposal mirroring President Donald Trump’s framework that makes drastic cuts to legal immigration, but only one — immigration hardliner Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) — fully supports what’s actually in it.
“I think it would improve the economy, because the people who work with their hands and work with their feet would see wage increases for the first time in 40 years,” Cotton told me in defense of the legal immigration cuts. (There’s some consensus among economists who study this that more low-skilled immigration actually raises wages for Americans overall).
I interviewed all seven Senate sponsors of the Secure and Succeed Act — a proposal echoing Trump’s calls for a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, known as DREAMers, in exchange for border wall funds, an end to the diversity visa lottery program, and substantial cuts to family immigration — to stop “chain migration” — that critics say it would gut the legal immigration system by up to 40 percent.
Apart from Cotton, each sponsor failed to defend the legal immigration cuts in the bill. (Increasingly, a vote on the Secure and Succeed Act looks likely to fail in the Senate, even with the backing of Republican leadership .)
Tellingly, some of the bill’s co-sponsors said they didn’t want legal immigration cuts at all.
“I am fine leaving the numbers where they are, for me personally,” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said of current immigration levels.
Others argued that cutting legal immigration wasn’t the “intent” of their proposal, as Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) told me. To be clear, even if it is not the intent, the proposal still does cut legal immigration by eliminating the diversity visa program and limiting naturalized US citizens to sponsoring “spouses and minor children.”
Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) avoided the question entirely by saying, “It’s something we ought to debate.”
As senators ramp up their deliberations on immigration this week to find a legislative fix for the soon-ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump promised to sunset on March 5, it’s clear cuts to legal immigration will continue to be a point of contention between Republicans and Trump.
The fact that the only senator in full support of what the proposal would actually do is an immigration hardliner is not a good sign for the prospects of a bipartisan DACA agreement.
For weeks, Republicans have echoed Trump’s call for an end to “chain migration” — or family-based immigration. But as the final proposals from the White House have come together in the Senate, Republicans are less eager about what ending chain migration would actually do to legal immigration levels — even those sponsoring the president’s proposal.
Grassley and Perdue both defaulted to saying they didn’t mean to cut legal immigration.
“There was never an intent — the motive was not necessarily a reduction — we actually need to increase the worker percentage of the population we are bringing in now,” Perdue said.
To be clear, last year Perdue and Cotton teamed up with the White House to unveil a grand Republican merit-based immigration proposal — the RAISE Act — that would cut the number of legal immigrants entering the United States in half by 2027.
All seven sponsors of the White House-inspired bill, which cuts legal immigration, have taken to voicing support for legal immigration reform that isn’t in their proposal at all.
“I think that we look at other visa issues as well and make sure that we are promoting the visa — work visa — so we are able to fill our labor pools,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) said.
A move toward a merit-based immigration system, they said, would offset the cuts to overall legal immigration levels by reallocating family-based visas to high-skilled workers.
It’s an idea that many Republicans are interested in, and there is a reasonable debate to be had over the benefit of a merit-based immigration system — whether it’s better to issue visas based on family ties or job skills. But all the bipartisan proposals being floated this week have tried to narrow down immigration talks, not expand them into broad legal immigration reform, a reality the sponsors have also tacitly acknowledged.
“If we don’t get it done this week, we have to try to get it done, but we have other things we have got to get to — a banking reform bill that has bipartisan support,” Tillis said, implying that legal immigration reform wouldn’t be done with any urgency. “We’ve got to get the omnibus done.”
In other words, the defense of legal immigration cuts is simply that Congress would deal with it later — maybe.
Republicans’ case for the White House-inspired Grassley-Cornyn immigration bill is that it’s the only proposal that has Trump’s blessing. The problem is that it doesn’t have the Senate’s support.
This is how Congress’s immigration fight has gone so far, stuck between bipartisan proposals Trump and conservatives won’t accept, and conservative, Trump-backed proposals that have no hope of gaining bipartisan support in the Senate.
Throughout negotiations, Trump has given airtime to immigration hardliners and is increasingly talking to the likes of Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Mark Meadows (R-NC), and Cotton, who have shown little interest in bipartisan compromise.
The Senate majority leader and Republican leadership are now backing a proposal that even the cosponsors can’t really defend.
In January, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) gave a candid explanation of the politics underlying the Senate’s immigration fight: He doesn’t think Cotton will sign on to “anything we can get 60 votes on.”
“We are going to lose some on either side,” Flake said. “I don’t think we are going to get all the Republicans.”
Now, Republican leadership is supporting a bill that only Cotton can fully defend.

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