A Merit-Based System Might Not Be The Answer to America’s Immigration Woes

March 22, 2019 by HJ Mai
(Archivo / el Nuevo Herald)

The history of the United States is inextricably linked to immigration, but creating a legislative framework that balances economic need with national security concerns appears to be an insurmountable challenge for today’s lawmakers.

President Donald Trump has been very clear about his priorities when it comes to immigration reform: it’s all about “America First.” The president campaigned on a platform of increased border security, protecting American wages and preserving the rule of law.

This approach, however, failed to take the country’s economic need for foreign-born workers into account. With a birthrate of 1.8 births per woman, the U.S. is below the threshold of 2.1 births per woman that demographers consider as the rate needed to replace the existing population.

If not for immigrants, the U.S. workforce would be shrinking, according to the Pew Research Center. While the Trump administration is aware of this fact, it is supporting a merit-based immigration proposal that would do nothing to address this issue, experts say.

The Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, which was introduced in August 2017 by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton, Arkansas, and David Perdue, Georgia, would create a skills-based points system and reduce legal immigration by 50 percent. The three main criteria for merit immigration under the RAISE Act are age, English literacy and skill.

“If you look at our current society, vital contribution is being made by people who don’t particularly fit the English speaking criteria,” Michael LeRoy, labor and employment relations professor at the University of Illinois, told The Well News. “I think it would result in less immigration and a much more homogeneous group of people coming to the United States.”

To emphasize his point, he used the example of famed physicist Albert Einstein, who would have never been able to come to the United States under the proposed system.

“He was older. He didn’t speak English. He had a skill, but was it the kind of skill that you would want? He was just a physicist. He wouldn’t make the cut,” LeRoy said.

Proponents of the points-based system, including Trump, regularly cite Canada and Australia as models for the United States to follow. But even those two countries have made changes to move away from a strictly skills-based system.

Canada began shifting its approach toward the needs of particular industries, Tamar Jacoby, the president of ImmigrationWorks USA, told The Atlantic in 2017.

The merit-based proposal also fails to address the future of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., Shannon Gleeson, associated professor of labor relations, law and history at Cornell University, told The Well News.

“In addition to thinking about legal routes for migration, I think it’s also imperative that we think about the close to 11 million individuals, who are currently here, who are out of status, and not likely to meet those criteria, that problem is not going to go away on its own,” she said.

Though Republicans and Democrats agree that the U.S. immigration system is broken, both will find it difficult to admit that the current proposal to switch from a mostly family based immigration system to a merit-based system is fixing the underlying problems.

“It’s got a lovely wrapper, but it’s founded on the assumptions that were contained in two 1920s era laws that were profoundly biased. I think on the surface it does not deliver what it is selling,” LeRoy said.

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