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“Cruel & Inhumane”: Rep. Pramila Jayapal on Trump Push to Slash Legal Immigration

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President Donald Trump on Wednesday embraced a proposal to slash the number of legal immigrants allowed into the U.S. by 50 percent over 10 years in what would be the biggest overhaul of immigration law in over half a century. The RAISE Act, or Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment, would create a so-called merit-based immigration system that would favor applicants who speak English, have advanced degrees or can demonstrate job skills. We speak with Congressmember Pramila Jayapal, who represents Washington’s 7th District. She formerly served as executive director of OneAmerica, a pro-immigration advocacy group.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Donald Trump Wednesday embraced a proposal to slash the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country by 50 percent over 10 years, in what would be the biggest overhaul of immigration law over half a century. The RAISE Act, or Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment, raises many questions. It would create a so-called merit-based immigration system that would favor applicants who speak English, have advanced degrees or can demonstrate job skills. The bill would also aim to reduce the number of refugees by half. Trump praised the bill in a White House ceremony Wednesday with the bill’s Republican co-sponsors, Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For decades, the United States was operated and has operated a very low-skilled immigration system, issuing record numbers of green cards to low-wage immigrants. This policy has placed substantial pressure on American workers, taxpayers and community resources. Among those hit the hardest in recent years have been immigrants and, very importantly, minority workers competing for jobs against brand-new arrivals. And it has not been fair to our people, to our citizens, to our workers. … This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first.

AMY GOODMAN: The RAISE Act would dramatically limit the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. to reunite with family members. It would end diversity lottery visas and set an annual cap on refugees allowed into the U.S. at just 50,000.

The plan was blasted by Democratic lawmakers and opposed by some Republicans, including Senator Lindsey Graham, who said it would hurt agriculture, tourism and service industries. On Twitter, the National Immigration Law Center wrote, quote, “The RAISE Act would shut the door on hundreds of thousands of families and refugees. It’s cruel and un-American,” they said.

At the White House, in the White House press briefing, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller was asked about the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty by CNN’s Jim Acosta, the son of a Cuban immigrant who couldn’t speak English when he came to this country.

JIM ACOSTA: What you’re proposing, or what the president is proposing here, does not sound like it’s in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration. The Statue of Liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being able to be a computer programmer. Aren’t you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country, if you’re telling them you have to speak English? Can’t people learn how to speak English when they get here?

STEPHEN MILLER: Well, first of all, right now, it’s a requirement that to be naturalized, you have to speak English. So the notion that speaking English wouldn’t be a part of our immigration systems would be actually very ahistorical. Secondly, I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty enlightening the world. It’s a symbol of American liberty lighting the world. The poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller accosting CNN’s Jim Acosta. We go now to Seattle, where we’re joined by Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. Last year, she became the first woman born in India to be elected to the House of Representatives. She formerly served as executive director of OneAmerica, a pro-immigration advocacy group.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Congressmember Jayapal.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you start off by responding to this RAISE Act? I mean, this is historic, if it were to be passed. I mean, the largest overhaul of immigration policy in what? Like half a century.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Yes, but it is not a workable situation at all. It is cruel and inhumane. But equally important, it absolutely ignores the fact that what we need to do is a comprehensive overhaul of our system that allows for our economy to work and allows for our families to be together. This, by cutting legal immigration in half and by completely overturning all of the—you know, sort of the essential components of immigration that we’ve ever known to be true, which is that we are a place of refuge, we are a place where people from all over the world come, this does not do anything to fix our broken legal immigration system. It just cuts the numbers in half. That’s not a solution.

And I think this is, frankly, just immigrant baiting for a president who was not able to deliver on a major promise that he made around healthcare and repealing the Affordable Care Act. He was rebuffed by the American people and by members of the Democratic and Republican parties. So, instead, what he’s done is turned to, first, transgender individuals in the military and, now, to immigrants.

But it’s not a workable solution. And honestly, I think it will be dead on arrival. You heard Lindsey Graham. You heard John McCain, others, Jeff Flake, people who recognize that what we need to do is actually update and modernize the system, not just cut the numbers in half.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this was already introduced, wasn’t it, by, among others, Senator Cotton?

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: That’s right. Perdue and Cotton introduced it. They did a big unveiling, obviously, at the White House with President Trump jumping on the bandwagon.

But again, you know, we know that immigrants have come to the United States for a multitude of reasons. And to somehow try to socially engineer the population that is here in the United States—that’s what this bill feels like to me—it’s incredibly hurtful to families who would not be able to bring their parents into the country. Now, I will just tell you, Amy, that, you know, I came here when I was 16 as an immigrant myself, and it took me almost 18 years to get my citizenship. I couldn’t get my parents here, because by the time I was actually able to sponsor them, they were quite old, and it would have taken another very long time.

So there’s also this assertion, through this proposal, that somehow we have all these people who are flooding in, they’re hurting our economy, and somehow we have to fix this so that it doesn’t get abused—so that the system doesn’t get abused and manipulated. That’s just not the reality. The reality is, our economy needs immigrants. There would be a huge blow to the economy if we were to do something like this. And it would tear apart our families and not allow, you know, children to be with their grandchildren. That’s just un-American.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about Stephen Miller, the senior adviser of President Trump? You don’t usually see him these days before the camera. But as he had this argument with the son of an immigrant who had come to this country from Cuba not speaking English, Jim Acosta of CNN, who questioned him, reading Emma Lazarus’s poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty—”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—saying to Stephen Miller, “What? Are you changing this now? You have to speak English and be a computer programmer to get into this country? What about refugees who are fleeing, for example violence?” he said. Can you talk about the response of Stephen Miller, saying, you know, that poem was added afterwards? In fact, what? In 1903, the poem was engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal’s lower level. What was that? A hundred fourteen years ago.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Yes. I watched that whole thing in disbelief. I mean, here is Stephen Miller, who is nor rejecting Emma Lazarus and, in many ways, the Statue of Liberty, everything that it has meant and come to mean about the United States. The thing is, Amy, immigration has never really been about immigration policy. It has always been about who we are as a country and what we’re willing to stand up for. And, you know, we have been a country that has welcomed people.

We certainly—he’s actually wrong, by the way, in the sense that Stephen Miller said that everybody has to learn English in order to take their naturalization test. That is true, but it isn’t true that everybody who comes to the United States already knows how to speak English. And certainly, for example, with refugees, we have a lot of refugees who come in, and ultimately they do have to learn English in order—a certain amount of English, in order to take their test. But to imply that the only people who have merit in this merit-based system are people who speak English is just absolutely ludicrous.

And I thought it was, you know, very important that Jim Acosta took on Stephen Miller on this question, because, as I said earlier, I think this is sort of a social engineering—you have to speak English, you have to have a certain set of skills—when the reality is that the U.S. economy depends on immigrant labor at every level, and Republican and Democratic economists have said our economy would collapse.

But not only that, you know, you think about the integration of families in this country. We say we’re a country of family values, and yet we’re going to cut off the ability for people who are here to bring their adult children or their parents into the country. That is just against everything that we have ever stood for. And Stephen Miller might want to stand up there and say America doesn’t stand for that anymore, but the reality is the American people don’t feel that way. The majority of American people believe that immigration is good for our country, because they see that there’s no way that our society would actually survive economically or socially without immigrants to this country.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the exchange between the CNN reporter, Jim Acosta, and the White House aide, Stephen Miller.

STEPHEN MILLER: I mean, you really don’t know that.

JIM ACOSTA: My father was a Cuban immigrant. He came to this country in 1962, right before the Cuban missile crisis, and obtained a green card. Yes, people who immigrate to this country can eventually—

STEPHEN MILLER: OK. So, Jim—

JIM ACOSTA: People who immigrate to this country through—

STEPHEN MILLER: So, Jim, as a factual question, Jim—

JIM ACOSTA: —not through Ellis Island, as your family may have—

STEPHEN MILLER: Jim, as a factual—Jim, as a factual question—

JIM ACOSTA: —but in other ways, do obtain a green card at some point. They do it through a lot of hard work. And, yes, they may learn English as a second language later on in life. But this whole—

STEPHEN MILLER: So, but, Jim—

JIM ACOSTA: This whole notion that, well, they could learn—you know, they have to learn English before they get to the United States, are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?

STEPHEN MILLER: Jim, actually, I have to honestly say I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English, as, actually, it reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree, that in your mind—no, this is an amazing—this is an amazing moment. This is an amazing moment. That you think only people from Great Britain or Australia would speak English is so insulting to millions of hard-working immigrants who do speak English from all over the world.

JIM ACOSTA: My father came to this country not speaking any English.

STEPHEN MILLER: Jim, have you honestly—Jim, have you honestly never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English, outside of Great Britain and Australia? Is that your personal experience?

JIM ACOSTA: Sir, of course there are people who come to this country from other parts of the world.

STEPHEN MILLER: But that’s not what you said! And it shows—it shows your cosmopolitan bias. And I just want to say—

JIM ACOSTA: It just sounds like you’re trying to engineer—

STEPHEN MILLER: And I just want to say—

JIM ACOSTA: —the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country through this policy.

STEPHEN MILLER: Jim, that is one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant and foolish things you’ve ever said. And for you, that’s still a really—the notion that you think that this is a racist bill is so wrong and so insulting.

JIM ACOSTA: I didn’t say it was a racist bill.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is, again, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller coming before the camera, one of the few times he has, though he was often the warm-up act for candidate Donald Trump when he was on the campaign trail, speaking with Jim Acosta. And I wanted to ask you about that word “cosmopolitan,” Congressmember Jayapal. Charles Pierce, in Esquire, writes, “The way Miller leaned into the word 'cosmopolitan' while answering Acosta has a long and ignoble history in 20th century authoritarianism, especially the anti-Semitic variety,” Pierce writes, making the case that this was a historical signaling device. Your response?

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Well, I think it was. Look, I think all of these things are a signal to a minority base that delights in the idea of division, that delights in the idea that somehow we should, you know, kick all the brown and black people out of this country. There is a small minority base that Donald Trump has always played to, and Stephen Miller comes from that line of thinking. He has made many comments throughout his career along those lines. And I think that these proposals are very much a part of their path forward.

And, you know, throughout this time, sometimes people will say, when we’re talking about immigration, “Well, we’re not talking about those folks who come here legally. We’re talking about undocumented immigrants,” or they will use other words to describe undocumented immigrants. But this proposal really shows that what they have always wanted to do is cut immigration, legal immigration, to this country, even though it makes no economic sense.

It is not what the American people want. The American people—the majority of the American people want a fix to the immigration system, so that there is a lawful system for people to come in and out that makes sense, that is reasonable. And that is, in fact, the final compromise that was reached in 2013, when 67 members of the U.S. Senate voted for a bipartisan bill that would have legalized undocumented immigrants, but also would have fixed the underlying system for legal immigration, because we all know it’s broken.

So, that—I think what Stephen Miller is trying to do is send a lot of signals to the base that, yes, we’re going to—you know, we are going to take our immigrants, and we’re going to—we’re going to just make them the target of all of your anger, and we’re not going to do anything to actually fix the problem. And this has been the Trump administration’s approach to a lot of things. And now, of course, immigration continues to be the place that they resort to every time they want to throw a bone to what I believe to be a small minority of the American people, but an important part of their base.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, I wanted to ask you about this Wall Street Journal piece yesterday that said, “Kushner Cos., the New York property development business owned by the family of [the] White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, has been subpoenaed by New York federal prosecutors regarding its use of an investment-for-immigration program, according to people familiar with the matter.” You know, that whole issue of using green cards, selling merit-based green cards.

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Yeah, yeah. This is—this is the hypocrisy of this administration. Their company continues to use foreign labor in ways that are absolutely, you know, I think, skirting the law often. They are not consistent with anything that they say. They are attacking immigrants, but at the same time all of the Trump hotels, all of the steel that’s used was imported. The labor and the goods are all imported from elsewhere. So, they’re not being realistic about—they’re not being honest, actually, is a better word, with the American people about the fact that they, too, rely on immigrant labor. And actually, they often skirt the laws that exist. That EB-5 visa program has had a lot of issues with misuse by corporations like the Trump Organization. So, if there are some reforms that are needed, it’s in those programs that are being abused by corporations, not in the legal immigration system that allows refugees to come here, that allows parents to come here or that allow for a variety of skills within the immigrants that come to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to switch gears for a moment. Where you are right now, Seattle, is in the midst of an unprecedented heat wave. Forecasters say temperatures could top 100 degrees both today and Friday, something that’s happened on just three days over the past 123 years. Compounding residents’ misery, a blanket of smoke from wildfires in British Columbia that’s settled over the Pacific Northwest. Ironically, the smoke may keep temperatures from reaching into triple digits. The heat wave raising alarm because only one in three Seattle homes has air conditioning, leaving seniors and other vulnerable people at risk of dying from heat stroke. We are living in the era of Trump, the Trump administration, President Trump a well-known climate change denier. What is happening in Congress around this? And your response to what has to happen right now, Congressmember Jayapal?

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL: Well, I’m very proud to have introduced, along with three other congressmembers—Raúl Grijalva, Representative Huffman and Jared Polis—a bill that is called 100 by '50. So, how do we reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2050? And it's a very comprehensive bill to take on the issue of climate change, but to do it in a way that really recognizes the disproportionate burden that communities of color, low-income communities face. That is our response to the continued denial from members of the Trump administration, including the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, that somehow climate change is not real and it’s not caused by humans.

I mean, this is an incredibly distressing abandonment of science, but also an abandonment of the United States’ role in global leadership. We are—we have stepped away from the Paris Agreement, of course. That has left a giant vacuum there. China is going to step in. I’ll tell you, India and China are addressing climate change because they know it’s real.

And if you want to talk about migration, one other thing we have to mention here is that climate refugees are going to increase around the world. They already have. We will see that continuing—a lot of the small islands in the South Pacific and elsewhere that are going to be engulfed. And people are going to die. People are going to need a place to go. This is about human beings and our ability to actually, you know, preserve the planet for the future, but also to make sure that we save people who are going to be underwater, literally, very soon.

The Republicans have just been in denial. Nobody is stepping up to challenge that view. They’re all just sort of following in line. And it’s because of big money, Amy. You know, the—it always comes down to who is funding these campaigns and these Republicans. And if you look at what’s happening, it’s the big fossil fuel companies who are continuing to fund this denial of the reality of science.

AMY GOODMAN: Pramila Jayapal, I want to thank you for being with us, Democratic congresswoman representing Washington’s 7th District, formerly served as executive director of OneAmerica, a pro-immigration advocacy group, now congressmember from Seattle.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, more casualties in America’s longest war, the war in Afghanistan. Could President Trump be considering extending this war to go after minerals in Afghanistan? Stay with us.

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