A new Senate bill introduced by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and David Perdue (Ga.) — and endorsed by President Trump — aims to cut legal immigration levels by half and implement a “merit-based” system that would emphasize job skills over family ties in awarding green cards. It would change immigration policies that have been in place for more than 50 years and significantly cut the number of visas allocated every year. But what does the public think about such sweeping changes?
Surveys over the past decade show Americans think it’s important for immigrants to possess several attributes prioritized by the new bill, including speaking English, having a job and a high level of education — but there’s mixed opinion on reducing the number of immigrants granted entry to the United States.
According to a June Gallup poll, 35 percent said immigration should be decreased while a similar 38 percent said it should remain at current levels and 24 percent said it should be increased.
No public survey has tested support for the Trump-backed proposal yet, but a 2007 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg News poll asked about a roughly similar framework involving a point system that “gives more weight to professional qualifications and command of English than to those having family already in the U.S.” Support for this was modestly positive: 34 percent supported the idea, 23 percent were opposed and 38 percent said they didn’t know enough. Republicans were more supportive of the idea than Democrats, by 43 percent to 30 percent.
Pollsters have also asked questions about individual aspects of the bill over the past few years. The merit-based system proposed in the Cotton-Purdue bill awards points based on ability to speak English, whether a candidate has a high-paying job offer, his or her age, education level, record of “extraordinary achievement” and investments in “new commercial enterprise.” An applicant would need to accrue 30 points in these categories in order to apply for immigration, according to the legislation.
Speaking English is widely seen as important
The bill awards points to applicants based on their prowess with the English language. A large majority of Americans think it’s important for immigrants to speak English, though opinions are more mixed on giving preference to people who are fluent in the language.
In 2013, a Gallup survey found that 72 percent of Americans said it is “essential” that immigrants living in the U.S. learn to speak English; 24 percent said it is “important” but not essential. Large majorities across party lines said learning English is essential, though this view peaked at 85 percent among Republicans compared with 65 percent of Democrats.
A few years before then, a 2009 Transatlantic Trends survey found 92 percent saying it is at least somewhat important for immigrants admitted to the United States to know English, with fully 69 percent saying it is “very important.”
Support for prioritizing English-speaking immigrants was less united in a 2013 PRRI survey asking whether people who “can speak English fluently” should be given preferences even if it means less space for other immigrants. Some 48 percent said yes while 47 percent said no.
A majority of immigrants agree that their fellow immigrants should learn English. In a 2009 Public Agenda Foundation poll of immigrants to the United States (conducted in English and Spanish only, it’s worth noting) found that 56 percent said the government should expect all immigrants to learn English, while 40 percent said it should be left up to each individual to decide. That figure is even more notable when coupled with the fact that 45 percent said they did not speak English at all when they the first came to the United States and another 31 percent said they only “knew a little.”
Employment and education seen as important for immigrants
The proposed program would give more qualification points to prospective immigrants who have been offered a job with a significantly higher salary than most in the state where they would work, and also gives greater priority to applicants with professional degrees or doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math.
While Americans prefer allowing immigrants with higher levels of education into the country, job status appears to be a more important factor when the two are weighed against one another: More than 7 in 10 in the 2009 Transatlantic Trends survey, 72 percent, said it is very or somewhat important for an immigrant to have a job offer when deciding whether to admit them into the country, about the same as the 69 percent who said it is at least somewhat important to have a high level of education. Both were prioritized less than the over 9 in 10 who said it is at least somewhat important to speak English.
An interesting trade-off between education and employment was tested in a 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey, which found a 48 percent plurality said they would prefer admitting lower-educated immigrants who have a job offer than highly-educated immigrants without a job offer, preferred by 33 percent.
And jobs and education are both ranked as important, though less than speaking English. There is little or no reliable public data on accepting more highly-paid workers above lower-paid workers.
Other polling suggests Americans don’t clearly prioritize employment prospects, education or English speaking in preference for immigrants to the U.S. A 2013 Gallup/Lumina Foundation for Education poll asked which of these three should be the highest priority in making immigration policy decisions, 34 percent prioritized family ties, 29 percent education level and 26 percent work skills.
There is far less public opinion polling on other changes to immigration priorities proposed by the Cotton-Perdue bill, such as the priority given to those in their late 20s, wealthy investors in U.S. businesses and to Olympic medalists or Nobel Prize winners. The decision to give less weight to family ties does encroach on policy with wide public support.
In a 2013 PRRI survey, 60 percent said preference should be given to immigrants with children or parents living in the United States legally and 63 percent said preference should be given to immigrants with spouses here legally.
With the August recess and other priorities on the agenda, it doesn’t appear likely that this legislation will go anywhere in the immediate future, but as the White House emphasized in releasing the proposal, it’s a step toward Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to shake up America’s immigration system.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.