“President Trump’s proposal to shift towards a “merit-based” immigration system would upend an approach that has existed for half a century.
Since the 1960s, the United States’ immigration system has largely based entry on family ties, giving preference to those with relatives who are citizens. But in his first address to a joint session of Congress in February, Donald Trump proposed moving away from that policy, focusing instead on an immigration system that would prioritize high-skilled immigrants.
Trump and his advisors have argued that the current levels of immigration harm American workers by lowering wages and preventing assimilation. A merit-based system, restrictionist advocates believe, would help lower immigration rates and ensure that the immigrants who do come are high-skilled workers who never need public assistance. “The current, outdated system depresses wages for our poorest workers, and puts great pressure on taxpayers,” Trump said in his speech to Congress.
The first example of the U.S. establishing qualifications for new immigrants was in 1917, when the government imposed a literacy test on those seeking to enter the country. In the 1960s, Congress lifted restrictions that heavily curtailed immigration from non-European nations, and reshaped the immigration system toward prioritizing admission of close relatives of immigrants already living in the United States. The overwhelming majority of immigrants are now admitted through that family-preference system, which significantly changed the ethnic composition of U.S. immigrant population by admitting more Latin American and Asian immigrants.
In 2015, for example, of the more than one million legal permanent residents admitted, “44 percent were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, [and] 20 percent entered through a family-sponsored preference,” according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Only 14 percent of those admitted came through a job-based preference. The “merit-based” immigration system, in theory, would increase the latter figure, as it would prioritize those who are highly educated and therefore considered more employable.
Such a policy would likely limit the supply of low-skilled workers, and might allow the administration to filter which immigrants it chooses to admit. And a merit-based immigration system could also help realize a longtime conservative policy goal—a reduction in the number of immigrants admitted overall.
Some Republican lawmakers have already pushed for legislation that would limit legal immigration. Last month, Republican Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue introduced legislation that would cut the number of immigrants legally admitted to the United States in half. It would do so in part by limiting the number of family members immigrants can sponsor for citizenship, a policy long sought by immigration restrictionist groups.
Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports curtailing immigration, said a merit-based approach could reduce the flow of immigrants coming into the United States. “The merit-system is also a surrogate for moving away from a system that the country doesn’t really get to control and regulate how many come in every year and who they are because of chain migration, the family-preference system,” Stein said, adding that a points system would be one part of the whole.
Nevertheless, assessing “merit” is difficult. A system that deliberately excluded low-skilled workers might raise labor costs in industries that rely on those workers, increasing prices for consumers but boosting wages for workers.”
Read the full article at the link.
Third-year law student Saurabh Gupta introduced this article as part of our class discussion of “Family-Based Immigration” during my Immigration Law and Policy class at Georgetown Law last week. Needless to say, it provoked a lively and informative discussion, with students exploring the arguments on both sides as well of the practicalities of running such a system on a larger scale.