RAISE Act Rundown: An Overview of a Recent Immigration Proposal

By Andrew Soboeiro

Debates over immigration were central to last year’s election, so it’s hardly surprising that elected officials are now seeking to reorganize naturalization policy. Of all recent proposals to do so, the RAISE Act has gained particular attention after being endorsed by President Trump. Proposed by Senators David Perdue (R-GA) and Tom Cotton (R-AR), this bill seeks to lower current levels of legal immigration while giving preference to immigrants who have what are deemed valuable skills.

Review of the RAISE Act

The Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy, or RAISE, Act would reduce the number of people eligible for United States lawful permanent residency. More commonly known as a “green card,” permanent residency is the ability to live and work in the United States with most, but not all, of the rights and duties of citizenship. The Federal government currently offers this status to more than 1 million people annually; the RAISE Act would reduce that to 540,000.

In addition to lowering the total number of people offered permanent residency, the RAISE Act would change who is eligible for it. At present, 480,000 people a year can obtain legal status if a family member sponsors them; this would fall to 88,000. Likewise, the number of refugees who are eligible would drop from 110,000 to 50,000. At the same time, the bill reserves 140,000 green cards a year for skilled immigrants, whom it defines based on English skills, education, job offers, and other factors.

If successful, this policy would represent a further tightening of what are already relatively restrictive immigration policies. For much of US history, there was no limit on the number of immigrants who could gain legal status, though there were restrictions based on race and ethnicity. The current system has created years or even decades of backlogs for certain categories of green card applicants, which will likely become longer if this law passes.

Understanding Merit-Based Immigration

Restricting lawful residency to those with certain skills is known as “merit-based immigration.” The United States has never comprehensively adopted such a policy. Instead, this law takes its inspiration from the immigration laws of other countries, notably:

  • Canada- The Canadian government offers legal residency to 25,500 people a year, and an additional 1,000 a year each for certain industries, based on their ability to earn “points.” Points are assigned based on education, English and French skills, work experience, age, and job offers.
  • Australia- The Commonwealth provides 190,000 visas annually to non-humanitarian immigrants. Like Canada, it assigns these visas through points based on professional skills, work experience, age, and other factors.
  • The United Kingdom- Immigrants to Britain who are not from other EU nations can qualify for legal status based on age, work experience, English skills, and financial self-sufficiency.

Supporters of the RAISE Act claim that merit-based immigration will benefit the economy. This claim is controversial among economists, many of whom argue that unskilled immigrants contribute as much or more to economic growth, notably because they are particularly likely to start businesses. Even economists who support merit-based immigration, however, generally do not support reducing the number of available green cards.