A merit-based future beats our 19th-century immigration system
Our current immigration system — if it can be called a system — is broken and generates enormous controversy. Contrast this with Canada and Australia, which admit many more immigrants in proportion to their native populations and suffer no controversy. They use merit-based “point systems,” accepting only the most qualified.
Why the opposition to such a system in America? Well, life imitates art. Much of the real-life opposition derives from a deeply held belief in the evocative poetry at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, you’re poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
But does this all-welcoming poetry align with our national interest?
It did when Emma Lazarus wrote it in 1883. National policy was Manifest Destiny, which aimed to expand the United States and to settle an unpopulated continent. Indeed, six years later, in 1889, we launched the Oklahoma land rush, offering up to 160 acres to anyone who staked a claim and committed to occupy and cultivate it. The nation needed all the citizens it could attract.
Today, tens of millions around the world would like to emigrate to the United States. Virtually all are “yearning to breathe free.” Obviously, we cannot accept them all. Life can no longer imitate art.
Indeed, long since we have imposed numerical limits on legal immigration. Today, the authorized level is 1 million. So, the key question is what kind of admissions process to follow, not how many to admit.
Our current system is dominated by the family reunification program.
Family reunification is really a self-selection process where one immigrant selects the next, who need only be an extended family member. Thus the term “chain migration.” Essentially, the government has no selective function. It merely verifies kinship.
It is past time to abandon this non-selective element of the 19th century “come one, come all” policy designed to settle the West and develop its agrarian economy.
Our present-day policy objectives are different. We have a populous, highly developed nation. With a declining birth rate and an aging workforce, we need young workers for a sophisticated economy and to support a growing population of retirees and our expensive retirement benefits programs. If that is our critical need, then meeting it should be the primary goal of our immigration system.
That is exactly what Canada and Australia do. Under their merit-based “point systems,” they score applicants for admission on multiple criteria, with the most points awarded to 20-somethings, who are at the beginning of their prime work years. They accept virtually no one age 50 or older — no one with more retirement years than work years ahead of them.
The second most important criterion in Canada and Australia is language proficiency, which is an essential skill for employment and which eases assimilation. Without listing all the criteria and parsing the entirety of these point systems, suffice it to say that they amount to competitive admissions programs, something that is unarguably American.
The case for a merit-based system is compelling. If far more people want to come here than we can accept, it only makes sense to select the best and the brightest.
Unfortunately, proponents of merit-based selection in Washington are advocating a 50 percent reduction of the authorized level of legal immigration. Nothing could be more ill-conceived.
Canada and Australia accept more immigrants than we do. There’s nothing about merit-based systems that require a numerical limit on immigration. We should want 1 million highly qualified immigrants, or more — across all employment sectors and all skill levels, according to our needs.
Now, what about the millions of illegal immigrants living here already? Unfortunately, they are the primary obstacle to overall immigration reform; we keep trying to resolve their status as the first step. It should be the last.
First, we should finally secure the southern border and eliminate visa overstays, and, second, we should adopt a merit-based legal immigration system. These steps are mutually dependent. After all, Harvard can’t accept only the best and the brightest if less capable applicants can simply jump its Ivy walls.
Once these two steps have been taken, then we should address our illegal resident population, using the same criteria we adopt for legal newcomers.
Until then, there should be no normalization, except for the 800,000 Dreamers, if their exception will bring about the first two steps.