By Laura Meckler and Kristina Peterson
WASHINGTON—The business and populist wings of the Republican Party are set for a battle over the nation’s system of legal immigration, which could prove to be as divisive as the fight over illegal immigrants.
The debate turns on whether foreign workers are an engine of economic growth, as many businesses say, or create unfair competition for Americans.
The question divides the party’s business wing from its surging populist branch. It’s similar to one within the party over free trade, with business interests supporting trade deals and populists now led by President-elect Donald Trump seeing many of them as harmful to American workers.
Business lobbyists and other backers of liberalized immigration laws are waiting to see whether the Trump administration uses executive actions to change the legal immigration system, and whether support remains in Congress for pro-immigration policies long pushed by agriculture, high-tech and other industry groups.
The H-1B program, for instance, provides visas for foreign skilled workers and has been capped at 85,000 per year for more than a decade. Supporters are pushing for more, noting that demand far outstrips supply; for the last four years, companies have filed more than 85,000 applications in the first week.
Critics say this visa program allows qualified U.S. workers to be displaced by cheaper foreign hires. In particular, they point to global outsourcing companies that rotate workers through the U.S. for training.
The number of green cards issued for employment each year has been capped at 140,000 since enactment of a 1990 immigration law, with some saying the number is too high and others far too low. There also are temporary guest-worker programs for agriculture and other jobs, but some back expanding and making them easier to use.
The critics are now positioned in influential posts in the incoming administration. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Mr. Trump’s pick for attorney general, has a long record of opposing additional immigration, arguing that new workers drive down wages. Breitbart News, the news and opinion website for which Trump adviser Steve Bannon was chairman, often gave a platform to opponents of increased legal immigration.
“Our current high levels of immigration—both legal and illegal—are having a negative effect on the wages and job opportunities of American workers as a whole,” Mr. Sessions said at a Senate hearing in June.
In contrast, the party’s business interests, represented by leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner, have backed higher visa totals. Business-oriented Republicans also favor expanding or streamlining programs for high-tech employees, a priority for Silicon Valley firms, and for workers in agriculture, the seafood industry and other fields. Most Democrats have been willing to go along, though labor unions have voiced concerns about the impact on U.S. workers.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump wasn’t specific about how he’d handle the legal immigration system. His immigration plan called for changes that would “serve the best interests of America and its workers.” He called for “keeping immigration levels within historic norms,” which experts say is code for reducing inflows.
In a video message last month on priorities for the first 100 days of his administration, Mr. Trump mentioned just one immigration matter, and it involved the system for legal immigration. “I will direct the Department of Labor to investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker,” he said. He wasn’t specific about the abuses he sees.
Some Republicans argue that immigrants fill jobs that Americans don’t want. “There aren’t Floridians that are going into those groves and picking those oranges. It’s just not happening,” said Rep. Tom Rooney (R., Fla.), who has pushed for changes to the system of guest visas for agricultural workers.
High-tech and agricultural lobbies are preparing to defend the legal immigration system and to push for its expansion. Partnership for a New American Economy, a group formed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has created coalitions in a half-dozen states aimed at building support for increased legal immigration programs. The National Immigration Forum, a center-right group that works with businesses, also plans a 28-state initiative to build support, touching 133 congressional districts.
Craig Regelbrugge, national co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and a lobbyist for the industry, said agricultural groups are preparing to oppose any push for new enforcement measures without increases in legal avenues to employ foreign workers.
Rather than focus on legal immigration, Republican leaders say their priority will be to try to pass border security and immigration-law enforcement legislation.
Mr. Ryan didn’t emphasize the system of legal immigration when he briefed House Republicans on top legislative priorities for the new Congress, said Rep. Kevin Cramer (R., N.D.), one of Mr. Trump’s earliest supporters on Capitol Hill. Mr. Ryan “referred to the border-security issue, not immigration,’’ Mr. Cramer said.
Other lawmakers say they plan to try to attach measures regarding legal immigration, including expansions of various visa programs, to any legislation that toughens enforcement.
“The demographics of the country cry out for expanded legal immigration,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said in a recent interview.
Mr. Graham has long backed a comprehensive bill that would include increased legal immigrant visas, as well as tougher enforcement measures and a path to citizenship for most of the people in the U.S. illegally. Mr. Sessions and others who want to curtail legal immigration, he said, were “dead wrong.”