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Questioning Trump on Immigration from the Right

Trump’s proposal has obvious flaws, but can be a first draft for a better system.

Credit: Evan El-Amin

In a move that is self-defeating and exposes the fundamental problem with America’s immigration system, Donald Trump proposed “automatically” giving green cards to foreign nationals who graduate from a U.S. college.

A Trump spokesperson clarified the offer to include both two-year and junior colleges, and to include every foreign student except those who are “communists, radical Islamists, Hamas supporters, America haters, and public charges.” Trump said this was another “Day One” plan for him. The goal is “to keep the most skilled graduates who can make significant contributions to America.” Currently foreign national college grads have to either leave the U.S. after graduation, work for two years as “practical trainees” and then depart, or apply for a hard-to-get work visa or change of status.


The plan, of course, is self-defeating on its face. Trump, like most people who read it, thinks his plan will scoop up the Red Chinese MIT PhD with the 4.0 GPA who wants to work on AI for Nvidia—forgetting America’s college system includes pay-for-play schools and visa mills, aimed directly at foreigners who just want a student visa to allow them to work in the U.S. at whatever job. Trump also forgets perhaps his own college days, which must have included a kid who just barely got by and graduated with a C- average in Medieval Music Theory. Not much demand for that. Once again, in order to get the baby, America is drinking the bathwater, too.

The concept of a merit-based system in the U.S. is not new. As president, Trump flirted with the idea but never moved to implement it. Even Hillary Clinton proposed a plan to link college grads to green cards. Since 1965, the American immigration system has been tied to the concept of family unification, with little interest paid to anything merit-based. The core problem with the family reunification system is the primary qualification to immigrate legally is simply that family tie. So America gets the drunk brother alongside the nuclear physicist sister. It’s a crapshoot. There is no connection to America’s economic needs. Things work similarly at the border, where America gets whoever survives the Darwinian slog through Mexico.

The American family unification system, with its small number of merit-based visas tagging along (mostly in the H-1B category) is near unique in the industrialized world. Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand primarily use 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 135 points for a master’s and only 30 for a high school diploma), language ability (extra points if you are fluent in English and French), and job skills. But you may not need a masters in computer technology for Canada; they’ll also take you if you are a tar sands miner willing to live five years in the unsettled west. The key is tying merit-based points to the nation’s economic needs.

The U.S. is stingy with the merit-based visas it does offer. Out of a total legal immigrant pool of about one million, the annual cap for the 2023 fiscal year was 65,000 skilled worker visas, plus only an additional 20,000 visas for foreign professionals with a master’s degree or doctorate from a U.S. institution. Not all H-1B visas, however, are subject to this cap. For example, up to 6,800 visas are set aside each year for the H-1B program under U.S.-Chile and U.S.-Singapore free trade agreements. Something special about skilled people in Chile compared to, say, Columbia?

Through the 19th century, America had virtually no restrictions on immigration. The country was huge and unsettled, and the need for unskilled workers was vast. Waves of Germans, Irish, Jews, and Italians came from every dump across Europe and beyond for work. New York City, the largest port of entry, was a center of light manufacturing and the source of more than half of the nation’s ready-made clothing; the vast Midwest was full of farms and steel plants.


The first real restrictions targeted the Chinese after they were no longer needed to build the western railways. Following the First World War, Italians and eastern European Jews, “inferior” groups, were banned. Racism dovetailed with an economy that was shrinking (ultimately drastically, in the Great Depression) and demanding higher-skill workers.

The years following the Second World War saw a massive change in immigration law. It was believed there was room for everyone again amid the postwar boom; old racial wrongs were righted by removing national quotas and emphasizing family unification. In a change from earlier immigration waves, most post-war immigrants were the relatives of earlier immigrants. The education and skills they had and how they met the needs of the American economy were not seriously considered. This system persists.

But what if we can do better, a lot better, for the needs of the 21st century?

The monetary reasons are there—what Trump is aiming for. Immigrants and their children founded nearly half of the Fortune 500 companies. These include five of the top 12: Nvidia, founded by a Taiwan national with a master’s from Stanford; Apple; founded by the son of a Syrian, no degree; Google, co-founded by a Russian immigrant, also with an MA from Stanford; Amazon, founded by the son of a Cuban immigrant with a degree from Princeton; and Costco, founded by the son of Canadian immigrants (San Diego City College) whose family emigrated from Romania. These companies alone posted a combined revenue of $1.4 trillion in fiscal year 2023, more than the gross domestic product of many nations. And immigrants are about 80 percent more likely to start a company than U.S.-born citizens.

And that’s not to say someone else, in this instance the UK, hasn’t already tried the idea and fouled it up by being too generous. Britain has a scheme which allows most college grads to stay on for two years and work toward residency.

The UK Graduate Route allows graduates to stay and work in the UK for up to two years after finalizing their studies. The government estimates this visa attracted many migrants to the UK, with them often misusing their benefits. More than 40 percent of people coming to the country for employment purposes in 2023 came from India or Nigeria. Talks for new rules follow plans to ban British universities from accepting certain postgraduates, in an effort to reduce net migration in the UK, which is highly driven by international students.

So there are lessons learned out there. Meanwhile, let’s not make the same mistake with college grads we made with relatives of earlier immigrants; this time let us separate the baby from the bathwater and get rid of the less valuable part. Instead of handing out green cards willy-nilly with each diploma, subject grads to a merit-based system with points awarded to skills/majors in demand, accredited schools that rank well nationally, high GPAs, as well as English ability and proven entrepreneurial skills. Trump is close to right in singling out foreign-born college grads. We need only to tweak the system he proposes to pick out the very best America deserves.