Immigration by Merit: An Overdue and Vital Reform

To the surprise of many pessimistic observers, President Trump’s address before a joint session of Congress last month struck a decidedly measured and policy-centric tone. Perhaps inevitably, news reports over the following week largely focused on the broad takeaways, ranging from military spending to tax reform. Buried deep within the speech, though, was a compelling tidbit that had heretofore been absent from mainstream American political dialogue: a call for the adoption of a merit-based immigration policy.

Before litigating the worthiness of such a change, it is important to first consider the background. Prior to the 1960s, United States immigration policy was tantamount to a quota system. Congress and the Executive restricted inflows from specific countries and regions, while incentivizing them from others. Depending on the era and its respective political climate, vast waves of migrants from, say, Mediterranean Europe or the Far East might be juxtaposed against a near-complete moratorium just a few years later. Such policies, of course, invariably evoke invidious memories of a more intolerant time—and to a degree, rightly so.

Then, following years of acrimonious debate on the subject, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) introduced landmark legislation in 1965 that would permanently reshape the face of U.S. immigration policy. The 1965 statute, colloquially known as the Hart-Celler Act, marked a decisive turning point; it all but scrapped the quota structure, and ushered in a controversial methodology of “family reunification” procedures that have since been responsible for an overwhelming share of the nation’s new arrivals. While the Act has justifiably garnered praise for its erasure of national-origin discrimination, an objective analysis reveals that its other components have put the U.S. at a decades-long disadvantage, hindering its ability to attract skilled migrants.

Because it is no longer legally permissible for the government to set manifold caps on immigration from specific, targeted areas, the result has in effect been an “open door” free-for-all. What’s more, the aforementioned family reunification guidelines provide that once an immigrant has arrived on U.S. shores, his immediate and distant relatives are granted preferential, expedited entry into the country. There is no doubt that these policies find their roots in the beneficent goodwill of American politicians, but after fifty years, the flaws must be acknowledged. Such a task has become increasingly challenging in contemporary politics—and even casual discourse. For many, the mere passage of time has rendered unfettered immigration something of a fait accompli. In certain elite quarters, it has indeed become utter anathema simply to suggest that the country’s interests might be entitled a role in immigration policy.

Of course, the concept of “American interests” is incredibly difficult to pinpoint. Any number of metrics and formulations might be applied to determine whether an immigrant represents a “net-positive” for his destination country. Thankfully, there exist many models from which to adapt throughout the developed world—several of them touted by our closest, oftentimes more unabashedly liberal allies. Case studies abound, but for the purposes of this discussion, consider Canada and Australia. Both industrialized, English-speaking bastions of affluence and free markets, these countries offer a practical point of comparison for the U.S.

The differences both in policy and outcome could not be more striking. In Justin Trudeau’s Canada, fully sixty-four percent of migrants granted permanent legal status are admitted on the grounds of economic potential (for its southerly neighbor, that figure is a paltry thirteen percent). What does this mean? Canadian immigration authorities dutifully prioritize applicants who have completed programs of higher education and established themselves comfortably in their homelands. Among the multifarious skills emphasized by the code, fluency in English and French leads the way, followed by educational attainment, work experience, age, and present employment prospects. In other words, a young corporate attorney or anglophone neurosurgeon would be admitted ahead of a septuagenarian street vendor who lacks language proficiency.

Launched in 1967—just two years after Hart-Celler—the Canadian template has stood as a dueling experiment in human capital, yielding manifestly favorable outcomes. Predictably, government data conclude that Canadian non-natives outpace their U.S. counterparts in nearly every criterion, spanning from employability to assimilation. A hemisphere away, Australia tells a similar story. As migrant flows became unsustainable in the late 1990s, the island nation likewise acted to shift to a merit system, whose result has been the welcoming of fully sixty-eight percent of newcomers on purely economic pretexts. Before an applicant may so much as be considered for admission, he must accrue at least sixty “points” toward his petition. Then, the individual is subject to the thorough review of the Department of Immigration and Border Control, wherein it is determined whether his entry is advantageous for the country’s interests. The specifications essentially mirror those of Canada, but in fact maintain stricter benchmarks for age and occupational outlook.

Perhaps the most remarkable consequence of Australia’s point mechanism has been its impact on wages. Because low-wage “cheap labor” (of the sort that accounts for the majority of American inflows) is all but barred, Australian nationals have not been forced into lopsided competition with foreign workers willing to toil for pennies on the dollar. American progressives are keen on championing a minimum wage increase, but they would do well to consider that Australia boasts the highest wage floor in the world—implemented with little fanfare thanks to an already-high “natural” minimum that is the product of carefully-orchestrated immigration policy.

Back home, meanwhile, the situation is not quite so propitious—and although this certainly is a “nation of immigrants,” that quaint adage must not be taken to prevent Americans from having a say in whom we absorb. Bluntly speaking, the costs of America’s failure to move toward a merit system are staggering. The implications have arguably been most pronounced for our welfare system. Each year, the federal government disburses trillions of dollars in “need-based” aid to qualifying individuals. Considering this gargantuan cost, would it not be sensible to give priority to immigrants who can self-sustain? Unfortunately, it seems our policymakers disagree. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, immigrants represent a net drain of up to $299 billion annually to the U.S. “safety net.” As the economist Milton Friedman famously quipped, one may have a welfare state or one may have open borders, but one cannot have both. The U.S., belying the laws of economics, has myopically attempted to have both.

The complications, though, do not end there: the costs of admitting hundreds of thousands of immigrants who lack the requisite skills for success in our society extend far beyond economics. According to research by the social scientist Robert Putnam, outlined in his authoritative 2001 work, Bowling Alone, the U.S. has suffered a precipitous decline in social capital since the 1960s. In troubling developments, membership in civic organizations has plummeted, cultural hostilities have skyrocketed, and Americans’ self-reported levels of trust in their peers have reached a nadir. This is not to suggest that immigration is entirely responsible for the phenomenon (the digital age certainly has not helped), but it indisputably exerts an outsize role. Data from Los Angeles, which Putnam pegs as “among the most ethnically diverse human habitations in history,” have directly tied the city’s population of unassimilated, financially-distressed immigrants to its concordant paucity of social efficacy. Over the years, the segregated metropolis has borne witness to numerous outbreaks of ethnic tensions and even violence (with disparate immigrant populations cordoned off in their own self-imposed enclaves) that might have been avoided altogether if the participants felt they had a “place” in American society. Sadly, current policies that fail to account for economic factors rob immigrants of such an opportunity.

Thankfully, the country now confronts a promising opportunity to turn the corner. In light of the President’s underscoring of the concept in his address last month, early drafts of merit-inspired congressional legislation have begun to emerge. Most notably, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) has spearheaded the effort in the Senate, with a bill aiming to drastically curtail the family reunification program, and replace it with guidelines to facilitate the arrival of high-skill individuals “with the potential to help the economy.” Liberal detractors will surely allege that these reforms signify nothing more than thinly-veiled, reactionary efforts to revert the country to a bygone era. Serious onlookers should be wary of such disingenuous accusations. No one in the mainstream policy arena has challenged the notion that immigrants are a bedrock of the American identity; rather, the proponents of merit immigration merely wish to ensure that those immigrants find a comfortable, auspicious place in American society.

When Canada and Australia codified this stance into sound law, there was no suggestion of racial animosity; instead, citizens and politicians alike banded together to enact meaningful alterations while still preserving the credo of inclusivity. The fate of of Senator Cotton’s bill and and others remains unclear, but partisans on both sides of the aisle should give these propositions the scrutiny and consideration they deserve. America must continue to pride itself as a beacon of hope and opportunity, but it cannot lose sight of its own interests in doing so. An immigration system steeped in merit, therefore, not shortsighted arbitrariness, is the only way forward—and would secure for President Trump an enduring legacy of putting the country first.