WASHINGTON - Two Republican senators say they are sponsoring legislation that would make major changes in the U.S. immigration system, slashing the number of foreign nationals admitted into the country each year by up to 50 percent.
The proposal, which by some estimates would reduce immigration from 1 million to 500,000 people per year, would align the federal government with policies that conservative "restrictionist" groups have advocated for years, if not decades.
The bill being proposed by Senators David Perdue and Tom Cotton would reduce immigration by limiting admission for migrants' family members, ending the diversity visa lottery program and making the process of obtaining "green card" work permits much more difficult.
Perdue and Cotton, who represent the states of Georgia and Arkansas, respectively, said Tuesday they hope to see their proposal reach the Senate floor this year, but that they do not expect quick action on the bill. Both men said they spoke to President Donald Trump before announcing their plans.
America's Voice, a group which lobbies for political rights for immigrants, criticized the bill, calling it part of a broader campaign to restrict immigration to the United States.
Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director of America's Voice, told NBC News her pro-immigration group is "very concerned about additional restrictions on legal immigration, as it's all of a piece, coming from the same dark place."
Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told VOA in a statement that attacks on immigrants hurt the economy and go against America’s values as a nation.
“First, President Trump rolled out an unlawful and un-American ban on refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. Now, Republican Senators are introducing legislation to take an axe to legal immigration -- without doing anything to actually enact comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.
“We are a nation of immigrants - new and old - and they are an integral part of our economy," Van Hollen said.
"They are entrepreneurs, job creators, and hardworking members of our society. These attacks on immigrants hurt our economy and go against our values as a nation, and we will fight them tooth and nail.”
The proposed Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, or RAISE, would allow only spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to enter the U.S. as immigrants. It would exclude preferential treatment for extended family members and adult relatives of U.S. residents, such as parents, siblings and adult children.
Cotton told reporters that a waiver could be granted to the parents of a legal permanent U.S. resident in case of illness - as long as the family guaranteed the new arrivals would not rely on public benefits for support or health care.
He and Perdue said in a statement they would eliminate the "outdated" diversity visa lottery, which they say "is plagued with fraud [and] advances no economic or humanitarian interest." The lottery program currently provides 50,000 visas per year.
A summary of the RAISE proposal said "green cards," the documents that denote permanent resident status and permit foreign nationals to work legally in the United States, would be restricted to a maximum of 50,000 per year. The summary estimated the average waiting time for such permits would rise to 13 years.
Immigrants with special skills “who come and help our economy” would still be allowed in, the senators said, and there would be no restriction on foreign nationals who have visas connected to their employment in the U.S.
Analysts familiar with the proposal said the bill is intended to prevent foreign nationals willing to work for low wages from competing with less-educated American workers, whose incomes have been declining in recent years.
"Unless we reverse this trend, we are going to create a near-permanent underclass for whom the American dream is always just out of reach," Cotton told reporters.
His aides estimated the RAISE legislation would cut immigration to the U.S. by 40 percent in its first year, and 50 percent over the next 10 years.