The RAISE Act: An Explainer

On the Trump-backed proposal to overhaul our immigration policy

Berny Belvedere
Aug 7, 2017 · 8 min read

The RAISE Act, which stands for Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment, is a bill introduced earlier this year by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) and publicly backed last week by President Donald Trump.

Though it stands little chance of passing anytime soon, some supporters are seeing it as a “great start” and as a “terrific opening bid,” in the words of National Review’s Robert VerBruggen.

So what’s in the bill?

Think of immigration reform as a category of policy proposal that seeks to alter either immigration levels or immigrant types, or both. The RAISE Act worries less about levels and more about types.

To be sure, the RAISE Act would alter immigration levels: it would definitely reduce legal immigration, probably increase illegal immigration, and almost certainly reduce overall immigration.

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s “2015 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics” (we don’t have the 2016 version yet), the U.S. added 1,051,031 legal immigrants in 2015. The RAISE Act, according to a data summary provided by Cotton, would reduce that number by 41 percent within the first year of implementation and by 50 percent in year 10.

The reason why I said this bill worries less about immigration levels than it does about immigrant types is because of the way it achieves this reduction. A legislator could ensure a drop in overall immigration by leaving our system intact yet calling for fewer immigrants under each classification. This would leave the immigration priorities and emphases as they are, yet secure the reduction by simply admitting fewer immigrants of each type.

That’s not the approach of the RAISE Act.

The Trump-backed bill’s primary focus, rather, is on changing the makeup of the legal immigrant class. It does this in a way that leads to a reduction in overall immigration, but that’s of secondary importance to the bill’s backers. What’s of primary importance is bringing in the “right” kind of people, which is understood by the bill’s supporters to refer to those who will make a bigger economic impact and who won’t be an economic drain.

The RAISE Act is certain to generate lots of support from Trump’s base. Two of the proposed changes in particular will come in for special praise: (1) the elimination of the “Diversity Lottery,” which grants 50,000 green cards to immigrants from low-admission countries, and (2) the establishment of a 50,000 refugee cap, which would disallow a future president to set a higher number in response to some world event that might call for it.

Thus far, Trump’s actions on immigration have been done via executive order. Obama, too, pursued immigration reform through this avenue. Yet the very reason they’ve gone down this route is because achieving immigration reform at the congressional level is difficult, if not intractable.

But this also means that statutory changes, once in effect, possess a level of durability that executive orders do not.

If Trump were to achieve a 50,000 refugee cap, there’s no guarantee that even a Democrat-controlled Congress would be in position to overturn that limit. A filibuster-proof majority would be required in the Senate, and politically a raising of the cap would problematize the sort of working-class voter outreach thought to be so crucial for the Democrats moving forward.

While these two features — the elimination of the Diversity Lottery and a 50k limit on refugee admittances — will grab the attention of Trump supporters most disturbed by “undesirable” immigration sources, it’s the bill’s signature move, the shift from an employment-based visa system to a points-based system, that will arguably help these supporters the most.

That’s because the employment-based framework enabled companies to bring in lots of low-skill labor, which served as competition for low income whites and put downward pressure on wages. But a points-based system, like Canada’s or Australia’s, will prioritize high-skill or “high-value” immigrants.

This is sometimes called a “merit-based” system, since it shapes the contours of immigration law around a set of characteristics specified as desirable or beneficial to the country’s interests. As the White House put it in its press release: “The system rewards education, English-language ability, high-paying job offers, past achievements, and entrepreneurial initiative.”

Those categories, spelled out more explicitly, are as follows:


  • 17 and under = 0 points
  • 18–21 = 6 points
  • 22–25 = 8 points
  • 26–30 = 10 points
  • 31–35 = 8 points
  • 36–40 = 6 points
  • 41–45 = 4 points
  • 46–50 = 2 points
  • 51 and older = 0 points


  • U.S. or foreign high school degree = 1 point
  • Foreign bachelor’s degree = 5 points
  • U.S. bachelor’s degree = 6 points
  • Foreign STEM master’s degree = 7 points
  • U.S. STEM master’s degree = 8 points
  • Foreign STEM doctorate or professional degree = 10 points
  • U.S. STEM doctorate or professional degree = 13 points

English Language

A test of English language proficiency will be administered. Possible outcomes are 0 points, 6 points, 10 points, 11 points, and 12 points.

Extraordinary Achievement

  • Nobel Laureates (or scholars of comparable acclaim) = 25 points
  • Winners of Individual Medals in the Olympics (or athletes of comparable acclaim) = 15 points

Job Prospects

  • If offered a salary that is 150 percent of the median household income = 5 points
  • If offered a salary that is 200 percent of the median household income = 8 points
  • If offered a salary that is 300 percent of the median household income = 13 points

Investment in, and Management of, New Commercial Initiative

  • If applicant agrees to invest $1,350,000 in a new commercial initiative, and to remain an active part of running it for three years = 6 points
  • If applicant agrees to invest $1,800,000 in a new commercial initiative, and to remain an active part of running it for three years = 12 points


An applicant must reach the 30-point threshold in order to even qualify under the new points framework.

So let’s say you’re 37 years old (6 points), you’ve got a foreign master’s degree in a STEM field (6 points), you score in the 8th decile on the English language exam (10 points), and you’ve been offered a job that will pay 200 percent of your would-be state’s median household income (8 points) — congratulations, you’ve hit the 30-point target.

So far we have not discussed the change that Julia Gelatt, of the Migration Policy Institute, seems to think is the most disruptive one of the mix: cuts to family-based immigration.

Recall, above, the number of immigrants the U.S. added as lawful permanent residents in 2015. Gelatt says that family-based immigration accounts for two-thirds of that total.

Here’s how the RAISE Act pretty much cuts that number in half.

Under current law:

  • U.S. citizens can sponsor spouses, minors, and parents without limit
  • U.S. citizens can sponsor adult children and siblings under a capped amount
  • Lawful permanent residents can sponsor spouses, minor children, and adult unmarried children.

As Gelatt explains:

[The RAISE Act] would eliminate all family sponsorship beyond spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and LPRs (reducing the age limit for minor children from 21 to 18), and would lower capped family categories from 226,000 green cards presently to 88,000.

I mentioned above that the RAISE Act isn’t going to pass the Senate anytime soon. Are its long-term prospects any better?

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat thinks a version of the RAISE Act is “probably the immigration compromise we’re waiting for.”

But Douthat sees two problems for the bill’s legislative prospects.

The first problem is that the Cotton-Perdue proposal is associated with a president whose ascent was darkened by race-baiting, and whose ability to broker any deal is seriously in doubt. By making immigration central to his campaign, Trump helped make this bill possible. But his campaign rhetoric also makes it more polarizing than its substance deserves, and his incompetence makes its legislative prospects dim.

The second problem is that mainstream liberalism has gone a little bit insane on immigration, digging into a position that any restrictions are ipso facto racist, and any policy that doesn’t take us closer to open borders is illegitimate and un-American.

That’s how we got the strange spectacle of CNN’s Jim Acosta, ostensibly a nonpartisan reporter, hectoring the White House’s Stephen Miller last week with the claim that Emma Lazarus’s poem about the “huddled masses” means that the U.S. cannot be self-interested in screening new arrivals.

I think Douthat misidentifies his own example here. Acosta is obviously clueless, but he’s also energized by Trump’s offensiveness. He was there to battle Stephen Miller, who elicits such acute revulsion from the mainstream media that Miller could’ve rolled out the cure for cancer and Acosta would’ve found a way to oppose him, perhaps by doing a slam poetry rendition of the Hippocratic Oath as a way of shaming Miller for having earlier backed a healthcare bill that would’ve made the cure less accessible to the poor.

All this to say: Acosta’s resistance was #resistance. It should therefore fall under Douthat’s first problem, not his second one. Does anyone think Acosta would’ve raised the same concern had the president not backed this particular initiative?

With that said, Douthat is right to see those two problems as genuine problems for any immigration reform proposal coming from the right. The involvement of Trump, and the borderless utopianism of the mainstream left, will prove difficult legislative problems to overcome.

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