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Point of Order

The problem with Congress's idea to base immigration on economic merit.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As the U.S. Congress barrels ahead on immigration reform, Canada and Australia have emerged as favorite prototypes. The so-called Gang of Eight in the Senate may end up proposing the United States take inspiration from those countries’ merit-based systems, which evaluate would-be migrants by their potential to contribute to the economy. That strategy has also found favor with conservatives like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), both of whom sit on the House Judiciary Committee, which will weigh in heavily on the final bill.

It’s not hard to see why the points system is having its moment. Broadly speaking, it culls skilled workers through a selection process that allocates — you guessed it — points for attributes like higher education, language ability, and youth (under 40 is preferred, because those applicants have a long work life ahead of them). That means — on paper at least — that immigrants will be poised from arrival to make economic contributions to their new country. Our current approach — which allocates the vast majority of visas for family reunification, and a smaller number for employment or humanitarian reasons —  doesn’t seem to hold the same promise of promoting our global competitiveness.

Before we embark on the Canadian and Australian way, however, it’s worth remembering that the best immigration systems reflect a country’s geography, system of governance, and societal contract. Points systems work best when governments react nimbly to events on the ground. That’s because the government is in the business of picking migrants; if the selection criterion isn’t capturing people who are prepared to compete in the U.S. job market, the process has to be tweaked. The U.S. Congress, though, doesn’t have a track record of being proactive on immigration: the last time it passed significant legislation on the topic was in 1990.

Moreover, even if the United States builds a points system that has a mechanism for assuring consistent reevaluation of the selection process, it doesn’t mean we will be able to replicate the Canadian or Australian experience. We are more dependent on low-skilled labor than either of those countries, and our geography does not allow the same kind of control over migration that Australia or Canada can exercise. 

Neither Canada nor Australia shares a border with a developing country. In addition, both nations have parliamentary systems. That style of governance gives ruling parties strong leverage in implementing their policy agenda, which is a boon in running an immigration system that needs constant tending. Both governments regularly make changes to their selection criterion: Last year, Canada began allocating more points for youth and less for overseas work experience while in 2010 Australia placed more emphasis on work experience. If we were to adopt a points system, we would need to create an independent board — possibly something along the lines of the United Kingdom’s Migration Advisory Committee — to ensure we can also respond to changes in our job market. Our system of government is simply too slow-moving to expect legislative changes to occur consistently enough to keep our selection criteria up-to-date.

Even with regular updating, points systems can’t determine with certainty who will thrive in a new country. Migrants with master’s degrees can find their foreign diplomas don’t carry much weight abroad. A points system also can’t calibrate "soft" skills, like how a person might come across in an interview. Finally, points systems often miss market signals: it’s challenging for governments to stay on top of fluctuations in the job market, so they select people who end up unemployed or underemployed. Intriguingly — in part because of stories of engineers driving cabs — both Canada and Australia have made their systems more like our system by allocating points to migrants who have already been offered jobs. If we go the points route, we should keep that part of our approach.

Designing a points system that doesn’t operate on autopilot and acknowledges the drawbacks of having the government conduct the selection process would increase the chances it could operate effectively in the States. But a merit-based system that makes it difficult for the unskilled to qualify could end up being a poor fit. For one thing, we are dependent on low-skill labor in a way that Australia in particular is not. As one Australian government official put it to me, "We have a tradition of cleaning our own gutters." That can be traced in part to its culture and history, but also the fact that lower-skill jobs actually pay something there: The country’s minimum wage is more than twice ours and the country has a generous social safety net. The United States provides little in the way of social support, and its minimum wage is among the lowest of the OECD countries. As anyone who has visited a restaurant, a construction site, or a suburban home can vouch, we look to immigrants to do everything from bus tables to stir cement to watch children. And as the baby boomers age, we will increasingly need foreign labor for elderly care.

There is, reportedly, going to be a so-called W visa to allow some low-skilled migrants to fill those positions legally. Even with that addition to our immigration code, we shouldn’t expect illegal low-skilled immigration to simply disappear. While the numbers coming from Mexico have dropped, migration continues unabated from Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras. And the numbers will climb if our economy makes a solid recovery.

Some U.S. lawmakers might hope to replicate Canada’s and Australia’s immigration systems, but we can’t replicate their immigration populations. We are not an island nation, nor is our sole border shared with the wealthiest economy on earth. And that means we will never have the same level of control over who lives here.

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