Tom Cotton

Republican U.S. Senator from Arkansas

In the last decade, Tom Cotton has risen quickly in the Republican Party. A military veteran and graduate of Harvard Law School, he was first elected to Congress for Arkansas’ traditionally Democratic-leaning 4th district in 2012. Since 2015, he has served as the junior U.S. senator from Arkansas, and is now considered a top contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

As a staunch supporter of President Trump, Cotton has pushed legislation that closely follows Trump’s “Four Pillars” immigration framework, which sought to increase funding for border security, including a wall; create a path to citizenship for DACA-eligible undocumented immigrants contingent on good behavior; eliminate the Diversity Visa lottery; and end so-called family-chain migration by allowing citizens to sponsor only their spouses and minor children. Cotton also supported some of Trump’s most controversial immigration policies, like barring travel from predominantly Muslim countries and appropriating emergency funds for the border wall. With Trump now out of office, the ideas and actions of conservative politicians like Cotton will determine the lasting impact of Trumpism on the Republican Party. 

Cotton has pushed for a complete overhaul of the immigration system, one that lowers overall immigration while prioritizing highly skilled individuals. This was the crux of his most famous piece of immigration legislation, the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, which he co-sponsored with former Georgia Senator David Perdue in 2017. The bill sought to cap refugee admissions, end the Diversity Visa lottery, limit family-sponsored immigration to include only spouses and minor children, and “eliminate the demand-driven model of employment-based immigration and replace it with a points system.” Under the proposed points system, an immigrant’s chances of receiving a visa would increase based on factors like level of education, English fluency, and past achievements. The bill received praise from President Trump, while Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain expressed opposition to its strict restrictionist goals. The bill ultimately failed to gain traction. 

Cotton later threw his support behind another initiative with similar aims, co-sponsoring the Secure and Succeed Act with Senators Grassley, Cornyn, Tillis, Perdue, Lankford, and Ernst in 2018. The bill sought to provide citizenship to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, provided they met requirements to obtain education, find employment, and abide by the law. In exchange, the amendment would have eliminated the Diversity Visa lottery, limited family-sponsored immigration to include only spouses and minor children, and allocated $25 billion to secure the border. The Secure and Succeed Act failed to pass the Senate.

One of Cotton’s main arguments in favor of restrictionism is that a high level of immigration benefits employers and white-collar professionals while depressing wages for native-born workers. This is a disputed position. In 2017, over a thousand economists signed a letter to President Trump arguing that immigration greatly benefits the economy. Other economists, most notably Harvard University’s Dr. George J. Borjas, argue the opposite.


Cotton’S IDEAS

  • Border Security

    Cotton adheres closely to Trump’s “Four Pillars” immigration framework, which includes a trust fund to improve border security. The Secure and Succeed Act, which Cotton co-sponsored, sought an additional $25 billion for border security.

  • Border Wall

    Cotton supported former President Trump’s 2019 reallocation of emergency funds to build the border wall. Responding to opposition by Democrats, Cotton said, “Let's get to the root of the problem and secure our border once and for all. No more border crisis, no more emergency. It's as simple as that.”

  • Detention

    Cotton followed former President Trump’s lead on detention policy, including the controversial “zero-tolerance” child separation policy. He opposed Democrats’ attempt to pass the Keep Families Together Act in 2018, tweeting that it would encourage the trafficking and abuse of children.

  • Immigration Courts

    In 2020, Cotton and Senator Kelly Loeffler co-sponsored the ICE Act, which proposed to allow immigration judges to issue bench warrants for immigrants who fail to appear in court. “Each year, tens of thousands of immigrants disappear into the United States rather than show up for their immigration court hearings,” said Cotton. “Our bill empowers immigration court judges to enforce the rule of law and have these criminals detained.”

  • Undocumented Population

    Cotton has generally focused on undocumented immigration as a cause of lower wages for U.S. citizens, a conduit for illegal drugs, and a potential threat to national security.

  • ICE

    Cotton is a vocal supporter of ICE. He has condemned lack of Democratic support for ICE and claims that “Democrats, in their heart of hearts, want to abolish ICE.”

  • DACA

    Like other Republicans, Cotton has argued that DACA is an executive overreach. However, if paired with other measures such as increasing border security and ending so-called chain migration, Cotton supports granting permanent status to DACA-eligible undocumented immigrants on the condition that they obtain education, find employment, and abide by the law.

  • Asylum

    In a 2019 interview with the Center for Immigration Studies, Cotton said, “Look, Guatemala, and Honduras, and El Salvador have many troubles. However, their citizens do not face the kind of persecution based on who they are or what they believe that our asylum and refugee laws were designed for.” Cotton supports asylum only under specific circumstances, particularly for refugees fleeing religious persecution and communist regimes. For example, he has criticized former President Bill Clinton for infamously failing to grant asylum to 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elián González in 2000, and in September of 2020 he introduced a bill that would prioritize refugee applications from Hong Kong due to China’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement.

  • Central America Policy

    In a speech on the Senate floor in March 2016, Cotton said he supports “efforts to assist countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to develop stronger institutions and improve living conditions there. … At the same time, we cannot solve all the world's ills and our foremost responsibility is to Americans, not foreigners. We can help reduce the push factors in foreign countries driving migrants to our borders, but we are not obligated to accept their citizens into our country.” Cotton has not commented on any specific plan to provide assistance.

  • Visas

    In a 2019 interview with Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, Cotton called the current U.S. visa system a “mishmash of quotas, and random set asides, and policies that are outdated and that no one can even explain.” He supports a complete overhaul of the immigration system, including ending the Diversity Visa lottery system, which randomly grants 50,000 visas per year, and limiting so-called chain migration by allowing citizens to sponsor only their spouses and minor children. Instead of the current employer-demand-driven system, he has advocated for shifting to a “points system” where visas would be awarded based on factors like level of education, ability in English, and notable achievements. In 2021, he co-sponsored legislation with Senator Mitt Romney to tie an increase in the federal minimum wage to mandatory E-Verify usage for employers to discourage hiring of undocumented workers.