How would 'merit-based' systems change US immigration?

Points-based immigration systems are in place in most wealthy countries. But if they function smoothly, it's because of bureaucrats.

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
An activist paints the US-Mexico border wall between Ciudad Juarez and New Mexico as a symbol of protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's new immigration reform in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on February 26, 2017.

President Trump called for the United States to shift toward a national immigration system more closely resembling a “merit-based” model employed by Canada, Australia, and others, in a speech before Congress on Tuesday.

“Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, we will have so many more benefits,” he said, according to transcripts.

Points-based systems, as the models are generally known, seek to determine how useful a prospective immigrant is for the national economy, with points assigned to factors like education, profession, and linguistic proficiency.

Family connections often help, too – in Canada, for instance, you can get points if you have family relations already living there. But the difference in priorities is clear: in 2012, for instance, Canada awarded about 60 percent of its permanent resident visas through the points system. In 2013, by contrast, the United States issued 66 percent of that type of visa on the basis of family ties.

A change in tack might prove popular with the broader public, says Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration attorney who teaches immigration law at Cornell University.

“Conceptually, Americans may like the idea of a points system – selecting the best and brightest,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor.

But points-based systems in other countries, including Canada and Australia, have undergone rather frequent reshaping over the years, as migration agencies move to resolve problems as they arise. And some experts think that for an immigration compromise to endure, Congress might have to pass off control over the system to an executive-branch agency capable of quick, flexible responses.  

“Canada and Australia have something we don’t have: they constantly adapt their system on the basis of evidence,” says Demetrios Papademetriou, president emeritus of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank. “They always try to figure out how close new amendments come to meet stated policy goals. We’ve never done that.”

“It means training people and hiring a different kind of person, who understand how systems function, and who constantly have their fingers on what’s going on on the ground and have the ability to tweak it administratively,” he tells the Monitor. 

“If Congress doesn’t task the administration to do this, we’ll have the same thing we’ve had for the last fifteen years: impasse.”

Whether Mr. Trump could get behind the expansion of more bureaucracy – albeit one presumably under his control – is perhaps another matter, given his chief strategist’s hope of “deconstructing the administrative state.” 

But his speech before Congress came just hours after he suggested to reporters that he could support a reform that granted legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. And the points system was a consistent feature of failed compromises from the past decade and a half, earning enthusiastic support from conservative voices on immigration, including attorney general Jeff Sessions and Trump advisor Stephen Miller.

In points-system countries, debates have tended to revolve around whether employers or the state should get to decide which kinds of foreign workers are needed, and who gets to come.

Migration agencies have in recent years concluded that governments are not very good at assessing that, with large numbers of highly educated immigrants ending up either unemployed or in jobs that weren’t suited to their skill sets.

That led countries like the UK and the Czech Republic to equip point-based systems – with their traditional factors like education, profession, language proficiency, and whether the applicant attended schools in the country in question – with an extra requirement that newcomers already have job offers waiting for them, as the Migration Policy Institute has noted.

More recently, Canada and Australia have moved to give employers more power, linking them to a pool of state-approved applicants whom they could sponsor for employment.

Reform toward a more points-based system, then, could be based on any of the diverse models already in use elsewhere.

“I don’t know to what extent those systems work better or worse than ours. You’d have to talk to people in those countries,” says Mr. Yale-Loehr. 

But, he adds, “Congress is going to have to face this philosophical debate if they’re going to be able to tackle immigration reform more than once every 25 years.”

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