Improving the U.S. Immigration System: Lessons Learned from the Diversity Visa, Family, and Merit-Based Immigration Programs

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Vlada Bierman


The U.S. immigration system is the subject of an ongoing debate regarding necessary reforms to protect American national security and benefit all Americans economically.[1] For instance, critics argue for the reduction of family-based immigrants in the United States. They contend the majority of immigrants enter the United States as legal permanent residents (LPRs) based on their familial ties rather than the skills they bring to the U.S. economy. Critics also believe that the U.S. diversity visa (DV) program or green card lottery—that allows 50,000 people to immigrate to the United States on a permanent basis—should be eliminated. They argue the program is fraught with fraud and creates national security concerns, such as allowing a number of terrorists into the United States, even if statistics reveal that the number of individuals admitted through the U.S. DV program (and family-based immigration) who have engaged in terrorist acts is minimal, when compared to the total number of immigrants admitted through these programs to the United States each year.[2] Additionally, some critics argue that the two immigration programs financially burden the U.S. government and economy. In this context, the current administration, through the Reform American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, advocates refocusing the U.S. system to a merit-based immigration system similar to those implemented by Canada and Australia.[3] Proponents call for an end to the DV program and a considerable reduction in family-based immigration pathways.[4] To address those calls, this thesis asks the following questions:

  • How should the current U.S. immigration system be improved to address existing economic and national security concerns presented by legal immigration?
  • What elements from existing U.S. legal immigration programs, as well as from Canada’s and Australia’s legal immigration programs, can the United States incorporate in its revamped immigration policies?

In answering these research questions, this thesis conducted a comparative analysis of select U.S. and other countries’ immigration policies.[5] Specifically, this research first reviewed and analyzed the U.S. DV and family-based immigration programs, as they are currently under consideration for revision in the most recent proposed legislation, the RAISE Act. Additionally, this thesis examined existing merit-based immigration systems in Canada and Australia. In this context, the investigation examined immigration programs in light of their economic and national security impacts in their respective countries. In terms of impact to the economy, the inquiry identified which of the aforementioned immigration programs—the U.S., Canadian, and Australian—have had a positive effect on their respective countries’ economies, based on levels of education and unemployment rates. In terms of impact to national security, the investigation identified and analyzed which immigration policies have resulted in fewer terrorist attacks by immigrants who come to each country, via relevant noted programs. Ultimately, in light of proposed revisions to existing immigration legislation, this thesis—using lessons learned from the U.S., Canadian, and Australian immigration policies—provided a set of policy recommendations for U.S. policymakers to consider as they search for answers to improve the U.S. immigration system.

This thesis found that although the U.S. DV and family-based immigration programs are not perfect, they serve an important purpose and can be improved. The DV program accepts immigrants who enrich and diversify the United States culturally and economically. Similarly, U.S. family-based immigrants enrich the U.S. economically, through investing in human capital, innovation, and entrepreneurship, as well as aid in immigrants’ economic integration.

This thesis also found that the Canadian and Australian immigration systems have a number of benefits, including regular system re-evaluations and adjustments, highly educated immigrants, and immigrant integration services. Nonetheless, the Canadian and Australian immigration systems also have shortcomings. Both the Canadian and Australian merit-based systems lead to underemployment of highly skilled immigrants. Additionally, the Canadian merit-based system creates low-skilled labor shortages, while the Australian system promulgates de-facto means of low-skilled labor employment. Moreover, Canadian and Australian merit-based systems present several barriers when it comes to the incorporation and implementation in the United States. For instance, U.S. geography, large population, and system of governance differ from those of Canada and Australia and create barriers to implementing a merit-based system in the United States.

Based on the assessment of the U.S. DV and family-based immigration programs and merit-based systems in Canada and Australia, this thesis recommends that the United States implement the following changes to its immigration system, to improve the DV and family-based immigration programs and address the primary concerns of critics of both programs:

  • raise minimum educational and experiential requirements for the DV program;
  • introduce points-based human capital criteria into family-based immigration;
  • institute a five-year review of the U.S. immigration system;
  • investigate national security vetting immigrant programs using the model of Canada and Australia;
  • implement additional measures to reduce identity fraud in the DV program; and
  • reduce financial burdens associated with the DV program.



[1] “What Immigration Reform Should Look Like,” Heritage Foundation, accessed December 13, 2019,

[2] “National Security Threats—Chain Migration and the Visa Lottery System,” White House, February 1, 2018,

[3] RAISE Act, S. 1720, 115th Cong., 1st sess., August 2, 2017,; Muzaffar Chishti and Jessica Bolter, “Merit-Based Immigration: Trump Proposal Would Dramatically Revamp Immigrant Selection Criteria, but with Modest Effects on Numbers,” Migration Policy Institute, May 30, 2019,

[4] RAISE Act; Chishti and Bolter.

[5] Eugene Bardach and Eric M. Patashnik, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving, 5th ed. (Los Angeles: CQ Press, 2016), 1–189; Center for Homeland Defense and Security, “Policy Analysis and Policy Options Analysis,” May 22, 2017, YouTube, video, 15:47,; Luciana Herman, Tips for Writing Policy Papers: A Policy Lab Communications Workshop (Stanford: Stanford Law School, 2013), 1–10,

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