Reforming U.S. Immigration Policy: A Case for Merit-Based Immigration?

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Daisy Garza


Family reunification has long been a central goal of U.S. immigration policy. While other comparable countries, such as Canada, prefer to admit individuals based on their skills, the United States accepts more individuals due to family ties than any other immigrant visa category. Family-based immigration does not screen potential immigrants for their skills or potential value to the country. Critics of the current family-based immigration system argue that a merit-based system (also known as a points-based system) would best meet U.S. needs, especially the country’s economic interests. They also argue that the existing immigration system fails to meet the needs of the country as it progresses toward a knowledge and innovation economy. These arguments suggest that, in a competitive global market, the United States should focus on bringing in individuals who have the skill sets that will give the country a competitive edge. Opponents of the current family-based system also believe it encourages the migration of low-skilled workers, seen as harmful to both American wages and the labor market.
The last time the United States examined its immigration system to support U.S. national interests was in 1990. Since the Immigration Act of 1990, the economy has continued to grow, industries have transformed, and the U.S. working population has changed. While there have been attempts by successive administrations to reform the U.S. immigration system, efforts have reached a stalemate. Decisions about which types of immigrant’s to prioritize—family-based, or skilled-based—continue to be a challenge for policymakers. They are further challenged to reach a consensus about the type of immigration system that would best support U.S. national interests. Accordingly, this thesis investigates how U.S. national interests have been defined in immigration policies, and whether current policy supports those interests.
This thesis reveals that the current U.S. immigration policy does not best serve national interests. This is not because the United States prioritizes family-based immigration but is rather due to stagnant immigration policy that does not respond to the changing needs of the country. The research shows that immigration proposals throughout the years have defined national interests differently, in accordance with the economic and political environment at the moment. Open immigration policies reflect periods of economic growth, while restrictive immigration policies reflect periods of mistrust or economic insecurities. The Donald J. Trump administration has propagated that U.S. national interests should be about the safeguarding of the American-born worker and the United States’ ability to bring in the “best and brightest” immigrants to compete in a global economy. President Trump has argued that family-based immigration, which he refers to as chain migration, is detrimental to the country’s competitiveness. Family-based immigration has been framed in a negative light by those who seek to limit immigrant admission numbers.
However, the analysis demonstrates that family-based immigration is more complicated than it commonly seems. The term chain migration creates the illusion that the family-based immigration system currently in place allows one immigrant to sponsor many more new immigrants, who may or may not fit American needs. Studies show, however, that family-based immigration brings in a significant level of educated workers, supports U.S. economic growth, and provides the country with needed labor supply. Arguments that family-based immigrants hurt native-born wages and limit employment opportunities for other low-skilled workers are unsubstantiated. The threshold for admission may be the relationship to a U.S. relative; however, family-based immigrants bring varied skills needed for a competitive economy.
The analysis demonstrates that the immigration apparatus in place has led to excess wait times, has kept families apart, and has led to temporary solutions to bring skilled workers to the United States. Unsurprisingly, the current immigration policies generated a demand that far exceeds the number of available immigrant visas. Inflexible per-country ceilings and numerical limitations that have remained unchanged for thirty years contribute to excessive backlogs. The combination of numerical limits and per-country caps leads to significant delays for employers who seek to bring labor to or keep labor in the United States. Furthermore, while family-based immigrants do make up a large share of the total annual immigrant admissions, the system does place limits on the number. Immigration statutes prevent family-based immigrants from saturating the U.S. immigration system. The discourse surrounding family-based immigration creates the perception of an unrestricted immigration system, but established numerical limitations counter that argument.
The United States functions on an immigration system that is intended to bring in streams of both family-based and skilled-based immigrants. Solutions for improving the existing system have focused less on remedying the mechanisms in place and more on overhauling the structure to reflect a points-based system, which selects immigrants based on the desirability of their attributes. The current administration looks to Canada’s points-based system, which has helped Canada bring in highly skilled and educated immigrants. A comparative analysis with Canada is conducted to explain how a points-based system works and why Canada has implemented such a system. The analysis also provides perspective on whether screening immigrants is an effective way to meet a country’s national interests, particularly economic interests, and whether other factors should be considered. Ultimately, the research demonstrates that the true lesson in Canada’s immigration polices lies in its flexibility rather than in its ability to bring in more skilled labor. Canada’s system has been successful due to legislation that requires a yearly administrative review of the immigration system. This requirement results in a system that is continuously being assessed for effectiveness. In comparison, the United States’ immigration policies cannot be administratively changed easily; they require policy development through legislative action. Politically this has been far from easy, resulting in the lack of significant immigration reforms since 1990.
While Canada’s system has prioritized the skilled and educated, the points system also rewards individuals who have preexisting connections to the country, like family members, which is often not noted in comparative analyses. Thus, Canada’s system also recognizes the importance of social ties to an immigrant’s success in the country. Family-based immigration has been a point of contention for those seeking to limit U.S. immigration levels and admit more skilled-based immigrants. This review demonstrates that there is merit in the established networks and wide-range of skills that family-based immigrants bring to the United States. Proposals that gloss over the current functions of the immigration system dismiss the realities of why the current system cannot meet its national interests.
This thesis finds that U.S. immigration policies should be continuously developed in order to support a spectrum of national interests. Through analysis of U.S. and Canadian immigration policies, this thesis recommends that the U.S. government create an immigration system that allows for different pathways for legal immigration while recognizing the value that family-based immigration brings to the United States. A well-managed immigration system is one that allows both family unity and the migration of skilled workers. Common-sense immigration reform requires more than looking toward foreign partners for solutions; it requires us to review what is currently in place and to identify ways to enhance existing policies. The government should allow for more flexibility in its immigration system; for instance, policymakers should create new visa categories to alleviate backlogs and consider allowing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to have more administrative control over immigrant admissions. Also, increasing immigrant visa allocations for skilled-based immigrants can help bring in more skilled labor to the United States. We can also use market data to meet labor shortages, eliminate per-country caps, and review social integration services.

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