To Edwin Valdez, turning 21 this month meant a lot more than just meeting the legal drinking age.
It meant he could finally sponsor his undocumented immigrant Mexican parents for legal residency. The Sierra College student and North Highlands resident, a U.S.-born citizen, said he prayed as he drove to school on his birthday, asking God to “make it happen” when he petitioned for his parents’ green cards.
So Valdez was dismayed when that same day, on Aug. 2, President Donald Trump announced his support for a bill that would overhaul an immigration process that has long favored family members of legal residents and citizens. The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, introduced this February by Republican senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, would halve the flow of legal immigrants into the country and prioritize more skilled visa seekers with a merit-based point system.
“This competitive application process will favor applicants who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families, and demonstrate skills that will contribute to our economy,” Trump announced last week, saying the change would stem an influx of low-skilled workers and end “chain migration” of relatives.
While analysts say the bill is unlikely to pass without modification, the sweeping changes it proposes have elicited strong reactions – from both supporters who say the RAISE Act will help the U.S. bring in top talent and critics who say it hurts families while penalizing immigrants from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In the city of Sacramento, where the latest census data show over a fifth of the population is foreign-born, immigrants who spoke to The Sacramento Bee took a mix of views on the type of reform Trump has backed. Many residents with foreign family members are hastening their plans to help relatives immigrate, despite the bill’s tough odds in Congress.
“Every client that I’ve dealt with, I’ve pretty much given them a quick primer on the RAISE Act,” said Naresh Vindi, a Sacramento immigration lawyer born in India who has followed the bill closely since February. “I’m like, if you have any family member, this is the time to act. I don’t know if this is going to pass, but you cannot take a risk with that.”
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ most recent data don’t show any conclusive trends in petitions since Trump’s election, according to spokeswoman Sharon Rummery. With the RAISE Act in the news, though, Vindi foresees more visa petitions on behalf of relatives.
“There’s going to have to be a spike,” he said.
Vindi said he’s personally “double-minded” about the reforms the RAISE Act seeks. On the one hand, he said, he supports a greater emphasis on skills and work in immigration, because he himself lacked family ties to the U.S. and faced slim prospects for getting into the country.
Vindi, 42, immigrated first to Canada, aided in the country’s visa process by his master’s degree, then moved to the U.S. nearly a decade ago on a work visa after becoming a Canadian citizen. Supporters of the RAISE Act have compared the bill to Canada’s visa system, which does admit immigrants who come for employment reasons based on merit.
Still, Vindi criticized the RAISE Act’s plan to slash family immigration rather than expand visas in other areas. A Forbes analysis notes that Canada lets in 10 times more family member immigrants proportional to its population than the U.S. would under Trump’s favored plan.
Vindi said he’s worried about his 75-year-old parents back in India, who he believes will be better off living with their sons in the U.S. in old age. Following his own advice to clients, he applied earlier this year to become an American citizen, afraid that otherwise the RAISE Act might preclude him from moving his parents to the U.S. even on a temporary basis. He has his interview next month.
“If we’re not able to bring our parents here, it would be devastating,” he said. “I think that’s the draconian part of what Trump’s proposing.”
In taking aim at so-called chain migration, the RAISE Act would allow roughly the same amount of immigrants to enter the county for employment reasons while cutting the number of those who enter with family connections – traditionally a majority of immigrants.
In the 2015 fiscal year, the latest for which the Department of Homeland Security has published its annual immigration statistics, nearly 700,000 of the slightly more than 1 million people granted permanent legal residency in the U.S. got their green card as a family member of a U.S. citizen or resident. Employment visas accounted for about 14 percent of green cards approved during that period.
Currently, U.S. citizens can sponsor their spouses, parents and young, unmarried children for an uncapped pool of visas. Siblings and adult or married children of citizens vie for a limited number of spots, as do the spouses and unmarried children of legal permanent residents.
Under the new system that Trump supports, citizens and permanent residents would only be able to sponsor their spouses and young children for visas, although citizens could get temporary visas for elderly parents who need to come to the U.S. for caretaking.
Relatives who would no longer get preference under the RAISE Act amounted to about 38 percent of family-related green cards in fiscal 2015, according to data published by the Department of Homeland Security.
The RAISE Act would also limit the number of refugees the U.S. accepts to 50,000 per year and eliminate a “diversity lottery” for immigrants from countries that send relatively few people to America. Its point system for employment immigration awards priority to people between the ages of 26 and 30 with advanced education levels, English skills and well-paying jobs awaiting them in the U.S., among other qualifications.
Alfonso Ramos, a Sacramento mechanic who said his family immigrated legally from Mexico when he was 4 years old, said he empathizes with people trying to bring in foreign relatives but favors limiting the entry of immigrants who aren’t educated or don’t speak English.
“It helps the United States,” Ramos said of a merit-based system. “It’s better if we have smarter people here.”
Ramos, 36, sees language skills and good job prospects favored by a merit system as crucial to an immigrant’s success in the U.S. He gave the example of his aunts, who are college-educated but work at McDonald’s in the U.S. partly because they don’t know English.
Vindi, meanwhile, views English as a skill immigrants can pick up in their new country. The lawyer noted Canada’s government sponsors English classes for new arrivals.
The White House’s championing of the RAISE Act has also spurred debate among California employers. The bill’s sponsors tout curtailing immigration as helping American workers by reducing job competition and raising wages, a point of contention for the bill’s critics. At the same time, even some Republican politicians have expressed skepticism on economic grounds.
“If this proposal were to become law, it would be devastating to our state’s economy which relies on this immigrant workforce,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said last week, citing South Carolina’s big tourism and agriculture industries.
Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said his group believes the RAISE Act would not affect the state’s agricultural labor force, partly because the bill would not change an existing program that allows employers to bring in temporary farmworkers.
Valdez, the Sierra College student, said he is betting that the RAISE Act won’t pass. He’s been planning his visa petitions for years, learning about the complexities specific to each of his parent’s cases. A green card – difficult but not impossible for undocumented immigrants to obtain – would let his mother travel to Mexico someday to see her own mother without fear of not being able to return, he said. It would also help both of his parents apply for work beyond their current jobs in fast food and construction by giving them the documentation many employers require.
“The current (immigration) system at least continues the idea of keeping families together,” Valdez said.