The fight over immigration on Capitol Hill may no longer just be about illegal immigration.

A bill introduced by senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue on Tuesday would halve the number of legal immigrants in the United States within a decade, marking a new battlefront on migration policy in the US.

It represents the latest effort by the populist wing of the Republican party associated with Donald Trump’s ideology to move the GOP away from the concerns of business groups.

The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment, or Raise Act, would alter the US immigration system to significantly reduce the number of foreigners admitted to the country without a skills-based visa. It would end green card preferences for the adult parents, siblings or children of US citizens. Instead, the preferences would only be retained for spouses and minor children.

The legislation would also eliminate the diversity visa lottery, which currently allocates 50,000 visas to residents of countries that do not currently send a significant number of immigrants to the United States, and would cap the number of refugees offered permanent residence in the country at 50,000 annually.

In an estimate presented by Cotton, this bill would reduce overall immigration to 539,958 a year in one decade, almost half the total of 1,051,031 admitted in 2015.

Cotton argued that the growth in legal immigration in recent decades had led to a “sharp decline in wages for working Americans” and that his bill represented an effort to move the United States “to a more merit-based system like Canada and Australia”.

But Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, said the bill “sends a terrible message to the rest of the world and is unquestionably a job killer”.

“As a nation of immigrants, this bill runs counter to our values,” Shaheen said in a statement. “The facts are clear: immigrants contribute greatly to our country’s entrepreneurial spirit, spurring job growth in New Hampshire and across the country. Cutting successful visa programs and needlessly separating immigrant families is just wrong and senseless.”

Although the White House has not weighed in on the legislation, Cotton told reporters that he had discussed the bill with Trump as “a concept” and that Trump “strongly supports the broad concept of moving our legal immigration system towards a merit-based system”.

Cotton argued that his legislation represented a return to historic norms in immigration but strongly criticized the comparisons to the immigration policy of 1924-1965, which kept many people from entering the country. The Arkansas Republican said the policy then was “too restrictive”, particularly toward refugees in the 1930s and 1940s. However, Cotton argued this was a byproduct of how long it took Congress to address “the very real concerns of the American people” during the great wave of migration from the 1880s to 1924. He said his legislation was designed to “start getting a handle on legal immigration”.

He dismissed concerns about limiting family migration to the United States and argued that concern families would be separated under the new law “looks at it the wrong way. What’s good for the foreigner, not what’s good for the American citizen.” Cotton added: “I feel for my fellow man but serve my fellow citizen.”

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