Here’s How to Establish a Merit-based Legal Immigration System

Helen Raleigh,

At his first joint session speech, President Trump mentioned that the U.S. should have a merit-based legal immigration system similar to what Canada and Australia have. He’s right and I have advocated for this very same point for years. While the U.S. gives overwhelmingly preference to family reunion-based immigration, Canada and Australia give preference to skilled workers.

For example, over 60% of immigrants to Canada each year are skilled/employment based, compared to only 20% of U.S. legal immigrants. Both Canada and Australia use web-based point systems that lets a potential immigrant do an online self-assessment to find out if he or she is eligible to immigrate to their countries. The point system works like a scorecard and it usually takes about 15 to 20 minutes to complete. It evaluates an applicant’s language ability, work experiences, education, etc. Only applicants who pass the minimum score can move forward with their immigration application.

nostay_small Here's How to Establish a Merit-based Legal Immigration System Opinion

The emphasis of skill-based immigration has brought impressive results.

Canadian government data shows that the labor participation rate for immigrants through the federal skilled worker program was 89%, and average salary was $40,000 in year one and $47,000 in year two.[i] For Australia, 68% of immigrants to Australia are skill based, while 31% are family based.

The labor force participation rate of independent skilled immigrants is 96%, much higher than the 67% among native-born Australians. Eighty-five percent of these immigrants are working full-time with a median earning of AUD 79,000. Canada and Australia’s experiences show us that a country can reap great cultural, social, and economic benefits from the right immigration policy.

It’s time the U.S. adopts a similar approach. We shouldn’t do away with family-based immigration and immigration on humanitarian need, but we should emphasize skill-based immigration by dedicating at least 50% of our annual immigration visa quota to skill-based immigrants (instead of the current 20%). Under the skill-based immigration program, we should have three subcategories:

· Independent skilled workers: those who don’t have arranged employment at the time of application.

· Employment-based workers or those nominated by individual U.S. states and territories.

· Entrepreneurs and investors.

To facilitate this skilled immigration program, we need to establish a selection process. Anyone who is interested in immigrating to the U.S. as a skilled worker should do a self-assessment online. We can adopt the Canadian point scoring system with a slight modification. Our scoring system should assess an applicant’s English skills, education, experiences, age, arranged employment in the U.S. and adaptability. The Canadian scoring system gives more points to an applicant’s education than experiences. Some critics think it tends to favor college graduates, the “good student” type. They argue that someone like Steve Jobs wouldn’t pass the scoring system because he was a college dropout. It’s true that college graduates and productive workers are hardly synonymous. So the U.S. should improve Canada’s system by up-weighting “experience” by giving it the same weight as “education”. Doing so ensures those who do not have much education but have experience in a skilled trade will have an equal chance to migrate to America.

I recommend this scoring system be entirely web-based. Potential immigrants can navigate and do this self-assessment on their own. A scoring system like this has many benefits. It:

· Increases efficiency.

· Increases transparency.

· Reduces subjectivity and complexity.

· Sets all applicants at an equal starting line with objective measures.

· Prescreens applicants and allows them to easily read through and self-select and evaluate their eligibility before they flood the system with applications.

· Promotes self-reliance by selecting immigrants based on their language skills, education, meaningful work experiences, and appreciation for what America stands for.

· Enables the U.S. to select skilled migrants who offer the best economic benefits.

· Makes for easy data collection, which will allow the U.S. to fine-tune its immigration policy on a timely basis.

Like Canada, we can set the minimum passing grade at 60 (the maximum of points on the scorecard is 100). Only those who score 60 or higher will move on to the next stages—building a profile and getting their skill and experience assessed.

Canada has a government-run national occupation database, while Australia has a non-government entity managing a similar database. I recommend the U.S. follow the Australian model, outsourcing the creation, maintenance, and updating of a national job bank to a private company such as Careerbuilder.com or Linkedin.com (I don’t own stocks of either companies.). A private company that makes a living by connecting employers and potential employees has every incentive to keep a national occupation database updated, and has the knowhow on who in the private sector is a suitable assessor for a specific skill/work experience. Only those who can get their credentials verified will be invited to apply for skilled immigration to the U.S. This will help turn a supply-driven immigration system into a demand-driven system.

To truly make our skilled-worker program merit based, we have to get rid of the per-country restrictions.[1] The merit-based system needs to be color-blind and ethnicity-blind. We want the best people to immigrate to the U.S. So what if we have many engineers and programmers from China and India? Most probably received their higher education in American universities with significant subsidies from federal and state governments. In other words: we as U.S. taxpayers have already helped to fund their higher education. Why should we send these smart kids home? It benefits America more if they stay here to start new businesses, invent new medicines, or build rockets.

Both the Canadian and the Australian immigration systems allow their provinces and territories to nominate skilled workers they want to bring in. The U.S. should do the same. Individual state governments and entities are more tuned-in to their economy and its labor needs than the federal government. Traditionally, states are on the receiving end of the federal government’s immigration policy and have borne a great deal of the cost to settle new immigrants. It’s only fair that a sensible immigration policy give states a voice on the skilled workers or entrepreneurs they want to bring in.

In summary, a merit-based immigration system would work like this:

· Applicants start by using a point-based web screening tool.

· Private organizations evaluate applicants’ education, experiences, and skills.

· The most qualified applicants are invited to immigrate to the U.S. as skilled immigrants.

· Investments are steered towards innovation.

With such a system, we as a nation can ensure that we are rolling out a welcome mat to the kind of immigrants we want, the kind who are willing to work hard and will contribute to our country.


[1] The 1990 Act sets a per-country limit of 7% of the total of family-based and employment-based immigration, no matter the size of the population of the country of origin. The dependent area limit is set at 2% of the total number of family-sponsored and employment-based visas.

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