The Way Forward on Immigration

March 3, 2017

The Way Forward on Immigration

There are so many issues to unpack around this call for a merit-based immigration system that it is hard to know where to start, so I will just jump in.

First, what is a “merit system”? The United States currently allocates visas based upon a preference system which essentially has three streams of migrants: those with employment ties, those with family ties, and those with humanitarian needs. Within the employment stream, priority is given to workers with greater education and experience. Low-skilled workers currently have very few options to work legally. Likewise, within the family stream priority is given to spouses and minor children over other family members. So, arguably, we already have a type of merit system.

What Do Canada and Australia Do That We Don’t?

Like us, Canada, Australia, and other countries, have employer-sponsored immigration streams whereby employers locate candidates that meet their business needs, fill out the paperwork and get government approval for them to live and work in-country. One big difference between our system and theirs is that they generally have enough visas to meet all the demands of their employers. They also are encouraging entrepreneurs. We, on the other hand, have years-long backlogs and visa lotteries to allocate this artificially scarce resource.

The United States currently allocates visas based upon a preference system which essentially has three streams of migrants: those with employment ties, those with family ties, and those with humanitarian needs.

The other thing that Canada and Australia have that we don’t is a point-based system whereby individuals can nominate themselves for an immigrant visa without necessarily having existing family or employment ties. The governments regularly adjust the number of points needed to respond to changing priorities and market needs. The big difference between us and them is that these countries are trying to attract more immigrants than are coming through the other flows where we have tremendous queues of people waiting to legally enter. Both countries currently have a greater percentage of immigrants in their populations than does the United States.

Would a Merit System Make Sense for the United States?

It depends. The devil really is in the details here. The comprehensive immigration reform efforts under both Presidents Bush and Obama sought to introduce points-based systems and/or commissions that would set immigration priorities. CFGI opposed the point-system in the 2007 bill but supported the merit-based provisions in the 2013 legislation. Our decision this time will be driven by the principles of whether it helps create a 21st century workplace that is fair, innovative and competitive. Testimony from a 2007 House Judiciary committee explains why the point-based systems in Canada and Australia would be difficult to replicate in the United States and a white paper explains the challenges with commissions.

What Was the President Really Driving at?

The United States currently welcomes about 1 million legal permanent residents each year. Approximately 14 percent are employment-sponsored workers and their families—a much lower percentage than in either Canada or Australia. At minimum, it appears that the president would like to increase this percentage. This could be done by providing more visas to clear the years-long backlogs of workers already vetted by the Department of Labor and USCIS, by creating a direct path to green cards for the students graduating from American universities, or by providing enough visas to meet all employers’ needs. It could also be done by recognizing the contributions of the foreign workers and especially the DACA recipients who are currently in the workforce.

In a private meeting before his address to Congress, the president signaled his openness to a path to permanent status for some undocumented immigrants, yet the tone of his remarks to Congress did little to set the stage for the bipartisan compromise that will be required to achieve the reform that the previous two administrations failed to reach. To have any chance at success, our leaders must move beyond the rhetoric and focus on the facts. CFGI has produced a variety of videos, statistics, and fact sheets to help them along the way.

The Authors: 

Lynn Shotwell, J.D., is the Executive Director of the Council for Global Immigration, which aims to provide the resources and support necessary to advance employment-based immigration of highly educated professionals worldwide. By maintaining the highest standards of practice and complia​nce, CFGI bridges the private and public sectors to promote sensible, forward-thinking employment-based immigration policies. She can be reached at