“Merit-based immigration” is one of those clever political phrases—like “pro-life”—that is impossible to oppose. Take the phrase at face value: who could be against an immigration system based on merit? Definitionally, it wouldn’t make sense. Someone who has merit is deserving, and immigration policy determines who deserves to become an American. To be against merit-based immigration would be to favor admitting those immigrants who least deserve to be here—not a politically viable stance.
But what does merit-based immigration reform really mean? It does not mean reforming our system so that we start admitting those who deserve to be here and barring those who do not. Rather, it means changing the definition of “deserve” in the context of immigration. Right now, the two main categories of immigration in the United States are family reunification and employment-based. Family reunification—or chain migration, as President Trump calls it—is the process through which current U.S. citizens and permanent residents can sponsor their direct relatives. (Somewhat ironically, the current emphasis on family reunification was established in 1965 as a way to keep the U.S. ethnically European. Lawmakers believed that immigrants coming through family-based visas would continue to be mostly European, as they had been pre-1965. They were mistaken.) Employment-based immigration means choosing immigrants by their potential value to the U.S. economy. This is based on factors such as education, ability, and current labor needs. When someone says they favor merit-based immigration, they likely want a shift in preference from family reunification to employment-based.
What would this shift look like in practice? For clues, look to Canada, whose government’s stated goal is “to build a fast and flexible immigration system whose primary focus is on meeting Canada’s economic and labour market needs.” In 2015, 65% of Canada’s immigrants were admitted on “purely economic grounds.” The results have been positive. Canada has one of the highest per-capita immigration rates in the world—much higher than our own—and, despite recent trends towards xenophobia, 82% of Canadians have favorable views on immigration. This is not true of America, where more people want to decrease immigration than to increase it (although public opinion on immigration is hard to nail down).
Donald Trump has spoken admiringly of the Canadian system; even so, it’s unlikely the U.S. willadopt something similar. Congressional dysfunction aside, it’s not clear Trump and his congressional allies are sincere in their wish to increase employment-based immigration. The administration has already taken steps to decrease the very type of foreign labor they say they want. What’s more, the Cotton-Perdue immigration bill that the administration supports, while claiming to increase the number of highly-skilled immigrants, would only increase the proportion of these immigrants by severely cutting other kinds. For most people, “merit-based” means wanting immigrants who will help the economy. For Trump, it may be code for wanting fewer immigrants altogether.
The current immigration debate seems far from over, and even if it wasn’t, the debate over who belongs in American will endure so long as there’s an America in which to belong. To learn more about the family reunification vs. employment-based immigration, as well as the other tensions that define the issue, download our presentation: Immigration Reform Under the Trump Administration.