• American Immigration: We Need a Merit-Based System

    February 4, 2018 // 4 Comments »


    The American immigration system based on family reunification is broken. A merit/points-based system can fix it.

    Nearly alone in the industrialized world, the U.S. has a patchwork of immigration laws and policies which fail the national interest while simultaneously failing many of the people seeking to immigrate here. What to do about immigration is a national policy decision (like defense spending, environmental rules, and taxes), not a global humanitarian program (that’s refugees.) The answer is not less immigration. Every person who brings their skills and labor contributes to growth, and everyone who acquired skills abroad did so at no cost to the U.S. In a global economy, that represents a magnificent advantage to nations that understand infrastructure is much more than bricks and mortar. It’s brains.

    Dollars and cents? Immigrant-owned businesses in 2014 generated more than $775 billion in sales and paid out more than $126 billion in payroll. Immigrant-owned businesses collectively created four million of the jobs today in the United States. Immigrants and their children founded 40% of Fortune 500 companies, which collectively generated $4.2 trillion in revenue in 2010. And you don’t need another list of immigrant celebrities, scientists, and business leaders.

    But what if we can do better, a lot better?

    Through the end of the 19th century, America essentially had no immigration law. The country was huge, land was available for the taking, and the need for unskilled workers seemed bottomless. The waves of Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, and Chinese came from every, well, shithole across Europe and beyond. They entered an America where New York City was a center of light manufacturing and the source of more than half of all ready-made clothing, and the vast midwest was blanketed with family farms and steel plants greedy for workers. This system gave way as the first real immigration laws targeted the Chinese, no longer needed to build the railways out west, and, following WWI, Italians and eastern European Jews who were considered “inferior.” Racism played a significant role, but it dovetailed more than coincidentally with an economy that was shrinking (ultimately, the Great Depression) and demanding more skilled workers.

    The years following WWII saw a massive change in immigration law. In the booming post-war economy, it was believed there was room for everyone again, and old racial wrongs were righted by removing national quotas and emphasizing family unification. Most post-war immigrants, unlike those of the great waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries, were the relatives of earlier immigrants. Little attention was paid to who these people were, what education and skills they had and, most significantly, what the needs of the American economy were in comparison. The majority of available slots were given to family ties, not persons independently seeking to work in America like our great grandfathers. This is the system in place today.

    Family reunification has some no-brainers, such as relatively easy entry for the spouses, children, and parents of American citizens. The complications arise in the preference categories. These include adult unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and Green Card holders, and their families. Also allowed to immigrate are the married adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and their families, and the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children. Once those people become legal, they can then file for immigration for their next generation of relatives. One immigrant can sponsor dozens of relatives, who in turn can then sponsor dozens — chain immigration.
    There are two massive problems with this system.

    Mexico, the Philippines, China, India, and the Dominican Republic are the most prolific sending countries to the U.S., creating a statistical snowball; more Chinese immigrants means more Chinese relatives to follow. Because of that snowball effect, and because Congress places strict numerical limits on the number of most family reunification-based immigrants, the waiting lines grow exponentially. In fairness to other nations with fewer emigrants, Congress created country-by-country limits (de facto quotas.) Those limits have become unmanageable under the first-come, first-served system. The most-backed up is the processing of siblings of Americans from the Philippines. That process is only now taking those applications (“priority date”) first filed in 1994. Applicants literally die waiting for their turn. Others see the long wait and jump the line, entering the U.S. illegally.

    How many people are we talking about? For all of the family unification immigrant visas, in 2017, about 466,585 people, out of a total immigrant pool of 559,536.
    That left 23,814 visas for people who immigrated to the U.S. based solely on their skills, education, and talent — merit. So out of more than half a million souls, only 23,814 were admitted based on what they bring to the U.S. Everyone else can be a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, or, randomly, a rocket scientist.

    The core problem with the family reunification system is the primary qualification to legally immigrate is simply that family tie; are you the sibling of an American? Welcome. So America gets the drunk brothers alongside the physicist sister. It’s a crap shoot. There is no connection to America’s economic needs. The family reunification system is a 19th-century legal hangover.

    It actually is worse than just the numbers when it comes to seeking the best and brightest from around the world. Of the 20,000 some merit based immigrants, in 2017 almost 7,000 of them were designated only as “skilled,” meaning they had only two years of training or work experience, and did not require a college degree. There are even a handful of merit-based visas reserved for unskilled workers.

    More? Merit-based immigration is largely based on first-come, first-serve grappling for those limited spaces. There is nothing in the system to prioritize a scientist working on something critical to the U.S. versus someone educated but in a field already overcrowded. It all depends on who files the paperwork first.

    The American family unification system, with its small number of merit-based visas tagging along, is near unique in the industrialized world. Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand use primarily a merit system based on “points.” Based on national needs, an applicant with no relatives in Canada will accrue points based on education (Canada awards 25 points for a Master’s, only five for a high school diploma), language ability (24 points toward immigration up north if you are fluent in English and French), and job skills. But you may not need a master’s in computer technology, for Canada: they’ll take you if you’re a rocket scientist, but they’ll also take you if you are a tar sands miner willing to live five years in the unsettled west. Think you’re good enough for Canada? Start the points process here.

    The present system fails so badly that it remains a statiscal miracle any good comes out of it at all. The small number of merit-based immigrants are untethered to America’s economic needs, and the family-based system is backlogged. How can the U.S. bring it’s immigration system into the 21st century?

    Step one is an emotional reckoning. We all know your grandfather came here with nothing and built his American Dream; mine, too. We also know many people rightly fear their jobs are endangered by immigration. It is time for America to move past the falsehoods and full-on hate that drives too much of the conversation. Same for the myths that largely unfettered immigration is so enshrined in the American story as to be untouchable.

    America must then move away from its over-emphasis on family-based immigration. Eliminate certain categories, or more sharply limit them. Then, remake the current merit system into a points system directly tied to economic needs. Need more electrical engineers than web developers? Prioritize. Change the priorities as needed, and move resources from the family-based side to the points side so that cases are processed fast enough that demand and supply match up. There are various proposals long these lines being put forth by Republicans in Congress that don’t cut immigration, just change it.
    It is hard to see why this seems so complicated. If the U.S. can draw the global best and brightest instead of hoping someone’s brother falls into the slot, why wouldn’t we want to do that?

     

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