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Senator Perdue touts his approach to immigration
Takes different path from infamous ‘Gang of Eight’
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Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue meets with Times editors Aug. 23, 2017, in Gainesville. - photo by David Barnes

Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, is pitching his immigration reform bill as a tried-and-true change to the nation’s immigration system.

Perdue sat down with staff at The Times this week while he was touring Georgia during the Senate’s August recess. The freshman senator is in his second year in the Senate after a career as an executive running companies like Dollar General and Reebok.

This year, Perdue is at the center of Congress’ latest immigration debate. He and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, introduced a bill this year that would cut legal permanent immigration in half in a 10-year period and would create a merit-based immigration system.

The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act was introduced in early August.

In the RAISE Act, immigrants are awarded points for their income, savings, job skills, ability to speak English and other factors. Perdue said the proposal was modeled on the immigration systems of several countries, especially those in Canada and Australia.

It’s not a new idea. U.S. lawmakers have been debating merit-based immigration since Bill Clinton was president. Republicans are hoping that the idea’s long tenure in the public sphere and its adoption by allied countries will be enough to find purchase among lawmakers and the voting public.

Unlike the “Gang of Eight,” the group of senators who tried and failed to hammer out comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, Perdue’s legislation has a narrow scope, he explained to The Times.

“The traditional approach has been: We want to solve this thing in a comprehensive, sweeping, Washington-type solution,” Perdue said. “They always start with amnesty and illegals and never get to the real parts that affect the economy in a big way.”

He, Cotton and staff at the White House — President Donald Trump has signed on to the RAISE Act — started with what they see as the problems with immigration: Chain migration, welfare dependency of new arrivals and the volume of migrants entering the country.

“One out of 15 people that come into the United States come in without any skills that can (get them) work,” Perdue said. “That leads to the fact that today over half of the immigrant households in America are in the welfare system. Now, that’s not what you want. You don’t want to bring people in and deny them an opportunity to achieve the American dream. You want people who can come in and improve the economy.”

They see the problem of welfare dependency as tied to chain migration. 

“If a worker comes in and gets a green card, they can bring their immediate family and their extended family, and what we did is we brought it back, like most other countries do, to the immediate family,” Perdue said.

The RAISE Act would end this practice and reduce the number of immigrants in general. If the bill becomes law, legal immigration would be cut in half in the next 10 years.

“The legal immigration side, to put it in perspective, we bring 1.1 million people in a year and give green cards to them. In five years, they become citizens,” Perdue said. “... that 1.1 million is about twice our 100-year historic average.”

Green cards would be limited to about 50,000 each year within the law while prioritizing high-skilled immigrants. Those two factors together are intended to benefit Americans earning the least amount of money.

“The intent of this, in all due candor, is to try to get more skilled workers in here, higher-skilled workers,” Perdue said. “Frankly, if you look at the last 40 years, skilled-worker compensation has risen. Low-skilled or non-skilled compensation has actually declined. We’ve had a growing gap in earning of those two groups.”

The RAISE Act would essentially create more competition for jobs among elites while reducing the supply of low-skilled workers in the United States, which should boost wages at the bottom end as companies compete for a smaller pool of workers.

Republicans are hoping that message resonates with both right-wing populists and left-wing Americans fond of Bernie Sanders’ style of economic populism.

But can the bill pass? Perdue was optimistic that the bill would find purchase with the public and Congress eventually, but he acknowledged that there’s little progress being made on much legislation in Washington, D.C., at the moment.

He said polarization and gridlock have slowed both confirmation of presidential appointments and legislation, leading to an enormous backlog of work that, combined with the GOP’s failure to pass health care reform bill from the Senate, will make even the routine business of Congress difficult.

“(Trump) worked with the House, they said they would get (health care) done and they finally got it done. We’re still in the process of trying to get it done in the Senate,” Perdue said. “That’s hanging out there and tax (reform) is hanging out there. Frankly, we’re running out of time to get tax done, and that’s why I felt we needed to stay there in August.”

Outside of legislation, Congress still needs to find a way to fund the government. Lawmakers are setting themselves up to relive old fights over the budget: the debt, deficit and who deserves the blame for letting both get out of control.

“This federal government has exploded just in two presidencies, one Republican, one Democrat. There are no innocent players here,” Perdue said. “So I’m not optimistic that we’re going to get a budget, reconciliation and all 12 appropriation bills done by September. There’s just no way that’s going to happen, so we’re headed for our 199th continuing resolution since 1974.”

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