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Jeff Sessions just left a leadership vacuum in the Senate on the issue of immigration, and Sen. Tom Cotton is trying to fill it.

The Arkansas Republican and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., this week introduced a tough immigration bill that has hardliners cheering, and signaled that Cotton is likely to inherit the issue from Sessions, who was just confirmed as President Trump’s attorney general.

Cotton and Perdue proposed the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, designed to lower immigration levels overall and admit more new immigrants based on their skill levels instead of other goals like family reunification.

Such an approach would be diametrically opposed the 2013 Gang of Eight bill, which was back in the news Thursday. That measure increased legal immigration, admitted new low-skilled guest workers and severely handicapped Marco Rubio’s Republican presidential candidacy.

Immigration restrictionists were pleased with Cotton’s legislation. “We applaud Senators Cotton and Purdue for recognizing the complete dysfunction of our current immigration policy and taking a giant step toward putting this nation back on the right track in modernizing and injecting fairness and individual merit back into the immigrant selection process,” said Federation for American Immigration Reform president Dan Stein.

Like Sessions, Cotton has emphasized the impact that lower-skilled immigration has had on the wages and employment opportunities of Americans with lower degrees of educational attainment, an issue Trump pushed during the campaign.

“Only about one in 15 immigrants coming in today is coming in because they have demonstrated skills or because they fill a demonstrated economic need,” Cotton told Fox News. “That means that they directly compete with high school graduates and people that don’t have a high school degree. Of course, that means there are going to be fewer jobs for those American citizens and lower wages.”

The 39-year-old freshman Arkansas Republican first stepped forward as an opinion leader on immigration in an op-ed for the New York Times. He argued that fixing the immigration system was a big part of President Trump’s mandate.

This included, he wrote, a mandate to “finally cut the generation-long influx of low-skilled immigrants that undermines American workers.”

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“Yet many powerful industries benefit from such immigration,” Cotton added. “They’re arguing that immigration controls are creating a low-skilled labor shortage.”

This is the same position Sessions staked out. “[H]igh immigration rates help the financial elite (and the political elite who receive their contributions) by keeping wages down and profits up,” Sessions wrote in the Washington Post. “For them, what’s not to like?”

With Sessions out, the Trump administration could use some reinforcements on immigration in the Senate. It is under siege on the immigration executive order, which has plurality support in a number of polls but has triggered mass protests and is currently tied up in the courts.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., sparked speculation Thursday that Trump was open to considering something more like the Gang of Eight’s immigration reforms. But the last time a roomful of people came away with the impression Trump was softening on immigration, it was soon followed by a tough speech linked to restrictionist top advisers Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller.

Senate Republicans have historically been in favor of a more lenient approach to immigration dating back to at least George W. Bush’s administration. While there are many immigration hawks in the House, comprehensive immigration reform has passed the upper chamber with bipartisan support multiple times.

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That’s why Cotton stands out. An Iraq War veteran closely aligned with lawmakers like Rubio on foreign policy, he is popular among conservatives. He is young. But he is also pushing one of the few significant efforts to reduce legal immigration since the Jordan Commission reforms were defeated in Congress in the 1990s.

Cotton and Perdue would prioritize admissions for spouses and children of American citizens and legal permanent residents. Parents who need care from their American children would be eligible for temporary but renewable visa.

Their bill would scrap the diversity visa lottery and cap refugees at 50,000. But the biggest change would be a steep reduction in legal immigration inflows by 40 percent in the first year and 50 percent in a decade.

Within ten years, legal immigration numbers would stand at less than 540,000 per year rather than over 1 million annually. It’s a relatively radical proposal, but one that could actually go somewhere today.

“This would be a nonstarter in the last Republican White House,” said a Republican congressional staffer. “It could maybe get signed in the Trump administration.”

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