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Opinion Trump's proposed immigration act mimics Canada's system — but don't be fooled

In one way, Donald Trump's proposed RAISE Act mimics the points-based immigration system that Canada has used for half a century. In another, much more important way, it is the complete opposite.

The two settler countries have embraced radically different philosophies toward immigration in this century. Canada is counting on large numbers of newcomers to sustain its economy and slow the aging of its population. The United States appears increasingly determined to shut itself off from the world.

The U.S. President has embraced a revised version of the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act, which was first introduced in February by Republican senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue.

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"The RAISE Act will reduce poverty, increase wages and save taxpayers billions and billions of dollars," Mr. Trump declared last week at the White House. " … This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first."

Currently, the United States issues a green card (the American equivalent of permanent resident status) to about a million people a year, a third of the Canadian intake on a per-capita basis. About two-thirds of those admitted are family members of people already living in the United States; another 140,000 are the American equivalent of Canada's economic-class immigrants.

Under the new bill, 500,000 family-class green cards would disappear. Only spouses and dependent children of immigrants would be admitted. Employment-class immigrants would be admitted at the current level, based on a new points system that would reward: fluency in English; advanced education in science, technology, engineering or math; a high-paying job offer; youth (25 to 30 is ideal); and/or the availability of at least $1.35-million (U.S.) to invest.

The move to a points-based system for choosing economic-class immigrants wouldn't change the mix of people coming in under that category much, because similar criteria are already being applied. Students and professional workers already in the United States on visas, many from India and China, would be favoured over Hispanic applicants hoping to reunite their families. In that sense, the proposed legislation on legal immigration complements the Trump administration's efforts to clamp down on illegal Latino immigration.

But what matters most is that the bill, if passed, would cut immigration numbers in half. Advocates maintain this would be good for American workers, who would face less wage competition from new arrivals.

"It's long overdue," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower immigration levels. "The public is deeply skeptical of the current level of immigration."

But critics warn against letting the United States – which faces the same issues of skills shortages and an aging population as other developed countries – close itself off from the world.

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"While the stated purpose of this bill is to increase skilled immigration to the U.S. and protect the American work force, it would do neither of these things," immigration lawyer Susan Cohen wrote last week in the National Law Review. "Indeed, the effect of this bill would not be neutral – it would do great injury to the United States."

Ms. Cohen pointed out that, in 2013, new immigrants equalled .74 per cent of Canada's population and 1.1 per cent of Australia's population. Yet new immigrants accounted for just .31 per cent of the American population and that number would be cut in half if the RAISE Act passed.

In contrast, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has already raised Canada's annual intake to 300,000, is being urged by business leaders and other pro-immigration advocates to increase the ceiling to 450,000 a year, not many fewer than the United States would bring in under the RAISE Act.

But that act, as written, is unlikely to become law. Senator Marco Rubio predicted on CBS that, "That bill's not going to pass. I think the White House knows that you don't have 60 votes for that in the Senate." At least eight Democrats would have to come on board and some Republican senators are also expressing reservations.

Still, as Mr. Krikorian pointed out, the proposed legislation establishes a new framework for the immigration debate, a framework of fewer immigrants. The city on a hill may be about to close its gates.

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