Twice last week, President Trump spoke out in favor of changing the rules under which immigrants are allowed into the United States, praising something he called a “merit-based” system. For Trump, who ran for office on promises of mass deportations, banning Muslims from entering the country, building a wall on the Mexican border and other strongly anti-immigration positions, any positive comments about foreigners entering the country are notable, and deserve some unpacking.
At present, there are several ways for foreigners to legally come to the United States to live, either temporarily or permanently. In 2015, for example, the US granted lawful permanent resident status, commonly known as a “green card” to 1,051,031 people. Recipients included winners of the “green card lottery,” also known as the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which provides a limited number of people from countries with relatively low immigration to the US the ability to come here.
Others earn the right to live in the US permanently by other means. Relatives of legal residents have a path, often tortuous, to legal status. This is by far the most common method of earning a Green Card, with 63 percent of them issued to relatives of current legal residents each year. Refugees seeking asylum in the US are also eligible for legal resident status.
People from other countries can also enter the country on work and student visas. These typically require them to demonstrate that they have either been offered legal employment in the US or that they have been accepted as students in an accredited academic program.
Some of these methods are plainly objectionable to Trump and his administration. Soon after taking office he issued an executive order barring refugees from entering the country. He also objects to allowing the relatives of existing residents an easier path to entry than others.
White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has also raised questions about allowing skilled immigrants into the country on work and student visas. For example, he said, “You’ve got all the engineering schools full of people from South Asia and East Asia. And it’s not that I have any problem with those folks learning, but they are coming here to take these jobs.”
So, it’s unclear exactly what Trump meant when, during his address to a joint session of Congress last week, he spoke in favor of merit-based immigration systems. However, he did offer some clues.
“The current, outdated system depresses wages for our poorest workers and puts great pressure on taxpayers,” he said. “Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others, have a merit-based immigration system. It’s a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially. Yet in America we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon.”
He continued, “Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration and instead adopting a merit-based system, we will have so many more benefits. It will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages and help struggling families, including immigrant families, enter the middle class. And they will do it quickly, and they will be very, very happy, indeed.”
Trump returned to the subject on Friday, reacting to the appearance of author Nick Adams on the television program Fox & Friends. Adams, an Australian by birth who emigrated to the US in 2016, is a rising figure in conservative circles. He founded the hyper-patriotic group Foundation for Liberty and American Greatness (FLAG). In his book, he documents his struggle to obtain a green card, arguing that the US immigration system is biased in favor of illegal immigration.
Nick Adams new book, Green Card Warrior, is a must read. The merit-based system is the way to go. Canada, Australia! @foxandfriends— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 3, 2017
Trump’s reference to the systems in place in Canada and Australia suggests the direction he might like to take the US system. In Canada, prospective immigrants face a points-based system for earning the right to enter the country as legal residents.
A 100-point scale accounts for various factors with high levels of education or training in desirable fields weighted heavily. The system also favors people who are fluent in either English or French, the two official languages of the Canadian government. It gives extra points, though fewer of them, to younger immigrants and those with family members already in the country.
Australia, similarly, focuses its immigration policy strongly on admitting younger, economically independent candidates. The country accepted slightly more than 262,000 new permanent legal residents last year, 57 percent of whom were allowed in because they possessed particular skills or educational credentials. Thirty-four percent were allowed in because of existing family members in the country, while a relative trickle, 9 percent, were allowed in under the country’s humanitarian program.
(Australia also has a draconian approach to dealing with illegal immigrants, even those who attempt to enter the country as refugees. Currently, there are thousands of would-be immigrants effectively imprisoned on remote islands in the South Pacific.
What exactly Trump would like to transform the US system into remains unclear, but a few things appear certain. He would prefer to limit immigration in ways that privilege the economically independent and make it much harder for poorer, less-educated people to enter the country.
That would mark a sharp, official break with the United States’ longstanding self-image as a place where people with little opportunity for advancement in their own countries can come to America to seek their fortune. It would also put intense pressure on sectors of the economy -- particularly agriculture -- that rely heavily on immigrant labor.
But, elected as he was on a promise to greatly limit immigration, both of those seem like prices Trump is more than willing to ask the country to pay.
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