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Trump-backed bill to cut immigration by half worries tech groups, angers civil rights advocates

A Senate measure that would create the RAISE Act would give priority for employment visas to immigrants with high-level skills rather than to those with family members in the U.S. Lori Galarreta/KPCC

President Trump backed a Senate bill on Wednesday that would drastically reduce legal immigration to the United States over the next decade, prompting concerns from business interests and strong criticism from immigrant advocates.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. David Perdue (R-Georgia) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), would change the immigration system from one giving preference to immigrants who have family members in the U.S. to one favoring immigrants with high-level skills.

According to the Associated Press, the bill would replace the current system of green cards, which allows recipients to obtain legal permanent residency, with a skills-based point system favoring foreign workers who speak English, receive high salary job offers, are able to support themselves and have skills that contribute to the U.S. economy. 

Immigration would be cut 41 percent in the first year and by 50 percent by the 10th year. The number of refugees would be reduced by half and a lottery that provides visas to people from countries with low rates of immigration would be eliminated.

The measure, which would create the RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy) Act, would not affect other worker visa programs such as H1-B and H2-B visas.

The president backs the bill because he said it would help U.S. workers and boost the economy.

"This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and puts America first," Trump said.

But technology companies, many of which need highly skilled workers, aren't convinced the bill would help their industry and immigration advocates and civil rights organizations expressed outrage over the measure. 

Max Brown, with the tech recruiting firm Silicon Beach Talent of Santa Monica, doesn’t see the measure as a big gain for his industry. He suggested it could backfire for tech workers. 

“My only concern is whether it was going to make it harder for them to bring their spouses or families over," he said.

The bill would eliminate the preference for U.S. residents' extended and adult family members, while maintaining priority for their spouses and minor children, according to AP.

Still the bill's shift away from uniting family members to a focus on highly skilled foreign workers brought a sharp response from immigrant advocates.

“We have a long tradition that we should maintain of keeping families together," said Apolonio Morales, political director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). Dividing families causes trauma, he said, and discourages immigrants from setting down roots and becoming citizens.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, said the bill harkens back to racist policies that existed over 50 years ago. "Its provisions reflect the shameful agenda of nativists and white nationalists who fear the growing diversity of our country," the organization said in a statement. 

Louis DeSipio, professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies at University of California, Irvine, said it’s not just Democrats who may oppose the bill.

“Also the business group is going to oppose it because they’ve been complaining, like the Chamber of Commerce is complaining, that they’re not able to find the workers they need and immigrants are filling in many of those jobs," he said.

The trade group ITI said access to workers is a challenge for the tech industry because employers cannot "find enough STEM-skilled Americans to fill open roles." But the group opposed the bill.

"This is not the right proposal to fix our immigration system because it does not address the challenges tech companies face, injects more bureaucratic dysfunction, and removes employers as the best judge of the employee merits they need to succeed and grow the U.S. economy," said ITI's CEO Dean Garfield in a statement. 

A similar measure failed to gain support previously in the Senate and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer dismissed the latest bill. 

"The bottom line is to cut immigration by half a million people, legal immigration, doesn't make much sense," said Schumer.