"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” may soon have to be changed to “Don’t even think about crossing that line,” if some Republicans get their way.
Now that the GOP controls all levers of power in Washington the sugar-coated rhetoric employed during Congress’ last immigration debate is giving way to a raw anti-immigrant stance that critics argue reveals rank hypocrisy and growing nationalistic tendencies in the party.
Jeff Sessions was viewed by many as the loudest anti-immigrant voice in the Senate, but now that he’s the new head of the Department of Justice – where he’ll be able to wield an extraordinary amount of power over immigration enforcement – there seems to be a new southern sheriff on Capitol Hill.
Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is one of the Senate’s new breed. The Harvard-educated Iraq and Afghanistan veteran came to the upper chamber after serving in the boisterous House of Representatives and has shown he isn’t afraid to throw bombs in the formerly austere Senate.
Cotton’s the senator who convinced 46 Republicans to break longstanding protocol and send a letter directly to “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” that attempted to undercut President Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with the nation.
The 39-year-old is often seen pushing his baby around the Capitol in a stroller, but that’s about where his soft side ends. While many in the GOP have been ducking immigration questions since President Donald Trump’s botched rollout of his non-Muslim-Muslim-ban, Cotton came out swinging.
The southerner unveiled one of the first immigration proposals in this Congress and it has a distinctly Trumpian tone to it: Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act (or the RAISE Act). Its aim is simple: cut legal immigration into America in half over the next decade.
The RAISE Act isn’t about keeping illegal immigrants out; it’s about keeping legal immigrants out.
While trying to attract skilled workers, the legislation would end the current preferences for relatives of legal U.S. citizens, like adult parents of U.S. citizens, unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens, adult siblings of U.S. citizens, among other categories.
“Once you get here, you have a green card and you can open up immigration not just to your immediate family, but your extended family, your village, your clan, your tribe,” Cotton told reporters this week. “I don’t think it works for American workers.”
The legislation would also eliminate the 50,000 visas passes out annually through the visa lottery, which receives more applicants from impoverished African nations and war torn countries than from anywhere else in the world. Cotton’s also proud the bill would cap America’s refugee program at 50,000 permanent residents per year.
“There’s no denying this generation long surge in low skilled immigration has hurt blue collar wages. It’s pulling the rug out from underneath them and unless we reverse this trend we’re going to create a near permanent underclass for whom the American dream is always just out of reach,” Cotton continued.
The bill includes a caveat that U.S. citizens could apply for a temporary visa for sick, elderly parents. But, “the parents are not permitted to work, cannot access public benefits, and must be guaranteed support and health insurance by their sponsoring children,” according to text provided by Cotton’s staff.
When a reporter questioned if the bill’s intent was to scare potential immigrants away from the United States, Cotton got defensive.
“I think the premise of your question is looking at it from the wrong way: It looks at it from what’s good for the foreigner – not what’s good for American citizens,” Cotton replied. “I feel for my fellow man, but I serve my fellow citizen. And our current immigration system simply does not serve our citizens very well.”
This is all new to immigration watchers though. Back in 2011 Cotton, like most Republicans, adhered to that day’s conservative rhetorical orthodoxy, at least in public statements on the issue.
“Finally, amnesty is unjust and immoral because it favors those who broke our laws over those standing in line at embassies hoping to immigrate legally – exactly the kind of immigrants we should want,” according to Cotton’s campaign website during the 2012 campaign cycle (which was helpfully copied by Project Vote Smart).
That’s a stark contrast to his new bill to keep low skilled immigrants, refugees and family members of U.S. citizens out of the country. What’s changed in the past few years to bring about this evolution? Critics argue Cotton and others in the GOP have been taken over by the new nationalism that was born out of the ashes of the 2016 election.
“They say, ‘We’re in jeopardy of losing our identity’ – our identity as a country which is majority white. That’s what they’re really talking about and they express it,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) told The Daily Beast. “It’s part of their xenophobia, it’s partly their anti-immigrant and it’s showing their real colors.”
Democrats charge Cotton and others with hypocrisy for the about face, but the senator and his staff disagree.
“How is it hypocritical?” Cotton’s communications director, Caroline Rabbitt emailed The Daily Beast. “There is no contradiction between, on one hand, not wanting to reward illegal immigrants at the expense of legal immigrants, and on the other hand, wanting to reduce the levels of immigration to better fit the needs of our economy. ..[H]e’s simply prioritizing those immigrants who are coming here to reunite with their nuclear families or contribute to our economy.”
One of the next items on Republican leaders list is to pay for Trump’s roughly $15 billion wall between the U.S. and our brown, I mean, southern neighbors. Party leaders have also said they want to invest more money in enhancing the nation’s employment verification system, in order to keep undocumented workers from employment.
“They’re going to continue to go piecemeal, but it’s all going to be one kind of piecemeal: It’s all going to be very aggressive, anti-immigrant enforcement legislation,” Gutierrez continued before he added the GOP’s trying to scare immigrants out of the U.S. “We have sat down with them in the past – you cannot deport your way out of this problem.”
Components of this new stand alone, America First-immigration reform model have made it into comprehensive immigration reform in the past, but the so-called Gang of Eight also created a new visa category to bring in 200,000 low skilled workers annually.
Not so with Sen. Cotton.
Many Democrats argue the new GOP tone is sending a chilling message across the globe.
“To me it’s dangerous. We’re in a global community and we need to recognize the fact that the risk factors of participating globally are minimal,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told The Daily Beast. “Where America is deficient, and deficient we are, is we need broad immigration reform.”
“So part of our problem in fighting the wrong parts of nationalism,” Cardin added. “There’s nothing wrong about rooting for America. I’m rooting for America, and that means maintaining our values.”