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RAISE Act’s restrictions on refugees are out of place in merit-based immigration debate

This post is part three in a series on S. 1103, the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR), David Perdue (R-GA), and Josh Hawley (R-MO). Part one reviews the proposal’s impact on wages and the economy, and part two reviews the proposed point system.

For more on principles for modernizing our employment-based immigration system, read our joint report with the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, “Barriers to recruiting and retaining global talent in the U.S.

On April 10, Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR), David Perdue (R-NC), and Josh Hawley (R-MO) reintroduced the RAISE Act (S.1103, the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act), legislation that would permanently reduce legal immigration to the United States in half by: eliminating the diversity visa, eliminating or restricting eligibility for immediate family and close relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and imposing a permanent cap on refugees; the bill would also replace the current employment-based system with a points-based system.

Though the bill’s authors claim otherwise, the structure of the RAISE Act imposes sweeping permanent changes to refugee policy that should have nothing to do with a debate about how to make our employment-based immigration system more merit-based. International treaty obligations and laws aside, the extent to which the U.S. admits individuals who are fleeing persecution and the standards employed to identify who has a credible claim should not be part of debate on the numbers of lawful immigrants the U.S. should admit.

While the annual refugee admissions number is not presently restricted by any legislation, the RAISE Act would have Congress impose a permanent cap on annual refugee admissions at 50,000 individuals, regardless of what may be happening in the world. It is quite murky – at best – as to whether a permanent statutory cap on refugee admissions posited by the RAISE Act is even sensible, much less a fulsome effort to comply with our treaty obligations to implement the Geneva Protocols. Present law, pursuant to the Refugee Act of 1980, requires the President to establish an annual limit each year for refugee admissions based on current circumstances, after consultation among the relevant executive branch agencies working with refugees as well as congressional committees.

Notably, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. from 1975 to 2017 averaged about 80,075 annually. During this period, the number of refugee admissions varied from about 20,000 to 200,000 a year, permitting the U.S. to fulfill its treaty obligations and also respond to any number of crises. Moreover, the cap does not come with a mandate to use all the numbers; Presidents Bush and Obama set annual refugee caps between 2007 and 2016 to permit the admission of up to a total of 991,000 refugees, yet only 665,994 were ultimately admitted.

Year to year fluctuations demonstrates why future Presidents should maintain flexibility to adjust refugee admissions as needed. Congress should not attempt to legislate a fixed number, let alone an annual number as low as 50,000, well below the 40-year average.

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