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Why We Want Immigrants Who Add Value

Why merit-based immigration wouldn't dishonor the American story.
Statue of Liberty

The American immigration system based on family reunification is broken and out-of-date. A merit/points-based system can fix it—without cutting overall immigration numbers.

Immigration is national policy (like defense spending and taxes), not a global humanitarian gesture (that’s refugees). Yet the U.S. has a patchwork of immigration laws that don’t serve its national interest while simultaneously failing many of the people seeking to immigrate here.

The answer is not less immigration. Everyone who brings his skills and labor contributes to economic growth, and everyone who acquired skills abroad did so at no cost to the United States. In a global economy, that represents a magnificent advantage to nations that understand infrastructure is more than bricks and mortar. It’s brains. Want it in 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 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Good. But what if we can do better?

Until the end of the 19th century, America essentially had no immigration law. Waves of people arrived with minimal inspection; few even had passports. This wasn’t a system anyone created, more something that evolved from the needs of economic migrants and a growing country. They entered an America where New York City was a center of manufacturing and the Midwest was blanketed with small family farms and huge steel plants greedy for workers. Places like Ellis Island served more to organize the flow of people than to limit it. This open system gave way as the first real immigration laws targeted the Chinese, no longer needed to build the railways out west, and, following World War I, Italians and eastern European Jews who were considered “inferior.” Racism played a role in cutting numbers, but the cuts dovetailed with a changing economy and, ultimately, the Great Depression.

The years following World War II saw a massive change in immigration law. In the booming post-war economy, there was room for everyone again, and old wrongs were righted by removing national quotas and emphasizing family reunification. Most post-war immigrants, unlike those of the 19th and early 20th centuries, were now the relatives of earlier immigrants, not independents seeking a new life. Little attention was paid to what education and skills they had and, most significantly, what the needs of the American economy were. This is the system in place today.

Family reunification makes it easy for the spouses, children, and parents of American citizens to enter. The complications arise in the preference categories. These include adult married and unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and Green Card holders and their families. Also allowed are the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children. Once those people become legal, they can file for immigration for their next generation of relatives. One immigrant can sponsor dozens of family members, who in turn can sponsor dozens more—chain immigration.

There are problems with this system. Mexico, the Philippines, China, India, and the Dominican Republic are the largest pipelines to the U.S., creating a statistical snowball: more Chinese immigrants means more Chinese relatives 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 nations with fewer emigrants, Congress created country-by-country limits (de facto quotas). Those have become unmanageable. The most backed-up is the processing of siblings of Americans from the Philippines. That process is only now taking applications originally filed in 1994.

How many people are we talking about? For all of the family reunification immigrant visas, in 2017, about 466,585 people out of a total immigrant pool of 559,536. Another 50,000 visas went to the Diversity Lottery, where entry is literally decided by chance. That left 23,814 visas allotted by Congress for people who are allowed to immigrate 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 specifically based on what they bring to the United States.

The core problem with the family reunification system is that 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 occasional physicist sister. It’s a crap shoot. There is no connection to America’s economic needs and no thought given to the impact on society as a whole. The family reunification system is a 19th-century legal hangover.

It’s actually worse when you drill down into the numbers. Of the 20,000 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 every year for completely unskilled workers. Merit-based immigration is also largely based on first-come, first-serve. There is nothing in the system to prioritize a scientist working on something critical to the U.S. versus someone educated but in an already overcrowded field. It all depends on who files the paperwork first.

The American system is nearly unique in the industrialized world. Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand primarily use a merit system based on “points.” In line with national needs, an applicant with no relatives in Canada will accrue points for education (25 for a Master’s, only five for a high school diploma), language ability, and job skills. Tally up 67 points and you’re minimally eligible to immigrate. But you may not need a degree in rocket science: Canada will also take you if you are a tar sands miner willing to live five years in the unsettled northwest. Think you’re good enough? Try the points process here.

The present American system fails so badly that it remains a statistical miracle that any good comes out of it. The small number of merit-based immigrants are untethered to America’s economic needs, and the family-based system is backlogged. So how can the U.S. fix its immigration policy?

Begin with an emotional reckoning. We need to leave behind the idea that largely unfettered immigration is so essential to the American story as to be untouchable. Same for the racist falsehoods that drive too much of the other side of the conversation. Those ideas live in the past.

For the 21st century, America must greatly expand the current merit immigrant categories into a points system directly tied to economic trends. Need more electrical engineers than taxi drivers? Prioritize and adjust the numbers as needed; a merit-based system is not an immigration cut. Plus, the immigrants who arrive will be better positioned to succeed in the job market. There are various proposals along these lines now in front of Congress, including at least one supported by the White House.

If the U.S. can actively draw the best and brightest instead of rolling the same old dice and hoping for the best, why wouldn’t we want to do that?

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.