The latest idea for Republican-sponsored U.S. immigration reform is the concept of “merit-based” immigration. This policy would overhaul a system that has been in place for more than half a century. President Trump unveiled this idea in his speech to Congress a few weeks ago.
Given the highly publicized and controversial nature of Trump’s recent immigration ban, this new focus could signal additional upheaval to our nation’s immigration policies. Skeptics believe this new initiative could be less about giving priority to highly-skilled workers and more about simply adding restrictions to curb the overall volume of legal immigrants of any type.
While this concept is only at the idea stage, it is important to take a closer look at how this early initiative could affect immigration policy and the lives of the people who wish to make a new home in the United States.
What is the merit-based immigration plan?
Immigration policy has been based primarily on selection by family ties, giving preference to the foreign-born who already have family in this country. This policy hasn’t changed extensively since the 1960s. According to the Migration Policy Institute, by 2015, more than 44 percent of the one million legal immigrants admitted to the U.S. were related to American citizens.
The new merit-based idea appears to be solely based on giving priority to immigrants who have specific job skills. According to The Atlantic, that is only about 14 percent of all legal immigrants currently in the United States. Advocates for curtailing legal immigration, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, suggest this model would be a good start toward restricting an immigration system that they say has run amok.
The idea is that highly skilled workers will be less likely to need public assistance. Advocates say they will also be less likely to take American jobs that go to our poorest working class citizens, who were a major part of Trump’s support during the election.
While there are no concrete plans for an American merit-based immigration system yet, it’s possible that it would only allow foreign workers to enter based on a specific set of market needs matched to specific job skills. Or, it could be tied to the income or other factors. Generally, it is believed the concept of merit-based immigration would put a priority on the potential employability of the worker by measuring job skills. It would discard the current system that favors families seeking to reunite.
Does assessing “merit” have any merit?
According to The Atlantic, the U.S. first imposed a method of establishing “merit” or qualifications for the entry into the country in 1917, when a literacy test was imposed as part of the immigration application process.
Canada and Australia currently use a point system to define the eligibility of immigrants; education and employment history are two factors within their review process. Merit-based immigration plan supporters suggest these are solid methods to emulate. President Trump praised these two countries in his speech to Congress last month.
The Huffington Post pointed out that if the Republican administration wanted to copy Australia and Canada’s immigration policy, there would be an increase in visas issued, not a decrease. Canada has a more expansive guest-worker program and allows families to reunite with no cap on the number admitted. It also has a guest worker program that provides labor to their agricultural industry.
It is anticipated that the merit-based system that Trump supports would include preferential treatment for high-skilled white-collar workers with advanced degrees. Newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been advocating for restricting the entry of foreigners by using a merit-based immigration plan for years. These plans often seek to curtail immigration by barring workers that are perceived to compete with blue- and white-collar American workers.
CNN Money reported that focusing on bringing in more high-skill foreigners could negatively impact blue-collar industries such as construction and farming that have grown to rely heavily on foreign unskilled workers. They cite the U.S. Department of Agriculture figures that show a lack of agricultural workers have driven wages up by five percent in 2016. This impacts the U.S. economy by driving up food prices. The article quotes a Cornell professor who says this low-skill job demand is the exact reason illegal immigrants come to the United States in the first place.
The New York Times quoted Tamar Jacoby, the president of Immigration Works USA, as suggesting the economy is more complex—the U.S. benefits strongly from both skilled and unskilled immigrants. An unequal balance could have adverse economic impacts on everything from restaurants to construction.
Yet, in practice, the Trump administration has been sending mixed signals. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service announced a temporary suspension of H-1B visa processing that will begin on April 3. H-1B visas allow employers to leverage foreign workers in high-skilled specialty occupations like programming, engineering, and medical research. This ban could last six months or longer. The Huffington Post says there are more than one million H-1B holders currently living in the United States.
How the current immigration system works
Today, the majority of all legal immigrants allowed in the country are here due to family ties. A very small number are admitted through political asylum or job-preference programs. American citizens may sponsor their immediate family, including a spouse or child, for visas. Green card holders can also apply for family visas.
According to The New York Times, 65 percent of the one million legal immigrants admitted in 2014 had been sponsored by family members. 15 percent came from an employment-based program (like H-1B). Another 13 percent had refugee status. Another 5 percent were admitted by lottery—a program that awards permanent residency to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.A.
So what is the true effect on the American economy of foreigners entering the United States?
Economists suggest immigration improves the economy
President Trump’s speech to Congress last week seemed to suggest that the current immigration system neglects to select based upon job skills, flooding the market with low-skilled workers who use unemployment or other government assistance because they cannot find jobs. In reality, the opposite is true.
States like California—whose farmers’ supply the majority of fruit, nuts, and vegetables to American families—are bracing for a worker shortage under the new immigration policies expected under the Trump administration. The Associated Press quoted Jason Resnick, VP of Western Growers (the largest California growers association), as saying merit-based immigration or other attempts to curtail the influx of blue-collar workers would actually harm the industry. The article cited a 15 to 20 percent shortage of farm laborers with that number expected to increase.
In an NPR interview with Joe Nocera of Bloomberg View, he noted that the President’s ambitious plan to create a trillion-dollar American infrastructure plan could come at a time when unemployment is very low. If undocumented immigrants (who make up five percent of the American workforce) are deported, it could actually harm the economy.
The Brookings Institute cites extensive academic research showing that immigration lacks the negative economic impact cited by the Republican administration. That’s because Americans don’t typically compete for the same jobs. In fact, research shows that immigrants actually have an overall positive effect on the economy.
However, economists are divided on whether blue-collar immigrant workers decrease the wages of American workers in certain categories. Whether the immigrants are Ph.D. candidates or migrant laborers, it should be noted that the research only takes into account documented legal immigrants. According to The Hamilton Project, around 11 million undocumented immigrants live and work in the United States, and most have been here for at least a decade. These workers staff hotels, kitchens, farm fields, meat packing plants and construction sites all over this country.
CNBC cited statistics from the National Bureau of Economic Research that shows undocumented laborers make up approximately 18 percent of the agriculture workforce, 13 percent in construction, and 10 percent in restaurants. Drastic changes to immigration policy, whether it comes in the form of massive deportations or replacing current policies with merit-based immigration, will potentially have a massive impact on the American economy.
Uncertain times lie ahead for U.S. immigration law
It remains to be seen whether the steps will be taken to create a merit-based immigration policy. In the meantime, the current President has taken some unprecedented steps to halt long-standing immigration policies that have separated families and disrupted the lives of legal visa holders in this country. Today, there is lots of uncertainty in the immigrant community in the United States. College students, white-collar tech industry workers, and foreign-born political refugees are all very concerned about their future in this country.
If you are an immigrant in these uncertain times, you may require the assistance of a skilled legal team that can help you understand the latest policy changes and advocate on your behalf. Katz Law Office, Ltd. offers a free 30-minute consultation that to help you determine your options.