Should the US Immigration System Be More Meritocratic?

(Full disclosure: I am writing this to avoid doing my decision tree programming assignments on Coursera because doing something else that has been on your to-do list for some time instead of what is due is one of the best ways to procrastinate. Plus I’m pretty bad at programming, so, you know, play in the area where you have an edge.)

Every few years, the US immigration system seems to become a locus of attention, a hot topic/hot-button issue, for at least a few months, before it fades back out of media cycles when something more pressing takes over. That may not happen with Trump as president, but I’m willing to bet it is likelier than not, unless, God forbid, another terrorist attack happens in the US. Much of the time, the discussion around immigration is based on poorly drawn party lines or already-extant policies, many of which don’t really seem to address the complex realities of immigration as it has evolved in the post-9/11 era. Republicans mostly toe the line and trumpet dire warnings about insecure borders and ISIS jihadists hiding amid inflows of refugees; also toeing the line, Democrats proclaim diversity and (occasionally) moral duties to assimilate the “poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Many on both sides make good points, but given how polarized politics are nowadays, and how far apart the two primary positions seem to be, it seemed timely to delve into whether a moderate stance can be staked out. (I already have pretty established ideas around the US immigration process, but before I sketch out my argument, let’s provide some background.) Moreover, it seemed a good time to actually learn more about current US immigration policies as, frankly, I doubt many know much about it.

US Immigration 101

Using the American Immigration Council as a source, here’s my summary based on some time spent reading through multiple documents today:

1: In general, US immigration is based on a few principles: family reunification, admission of skilled immigrants, protecting refugees and promoting diversity.

2: Essentially, adult children and brothers and sisters of US citizens, plus spouses and unmarried children of lawful permanent residents (LPRs) all fall under that first principle (occasionally the second) and thus make up the majority of migrants (based on 2014 data).

Those preferences should be noted carefully, by the way.

3: Things get considerably hairier when you consider people who are here based on their employment. There are over 20 types of visas for temporary nonimmigrant workers, for starters. Some of the more popular ones: H-1B and H-1B1, with more detailed here. In 2012, close to 612,000 temporary foreign worker visas were issued, according to Brookings. Meanwhile, when you consider permanent immigration, there are five preferential categories:

4: There are also per-country ceilings, with the key provision here being that no group of permanent immigrants (family or employment-based) from a single country can exceed 7% of the total amount of people immigrating to the US in a single fiscal year.

5: In regards to refugees, the strictures are quite interesting. From AIC: “Refugees are admitted to the United States based upon an inability to return to their home countries because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to their race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin. Refugees apply for admission from outside of the United States, generally from a “transition country” that is outside their home country. The admission of refugees turns on numerous factors, such as the degree of risk they face, membership in a group that is of special concern to the United States (designated yearly by the President of the United States and Congress), and whether or not they have family members in the United States. Each year the President, in consultation with Congress, determines the numerical ceiling for refugee admissions. The total limit is broken down into limits for each region of the world as well. After September 11, 2001, the number of refugees admitted into the United States fell drastically, but annual admissions have steadily increased as more sophisticated means of conducting security checks have been put into place. For FY 2016, the President set the worldwide refugee ceiling at 85,000…”

Asylum has no limits, but you have to be a person already in the US seeking protection under the same criteria as refugees. There’s no limit on the number of individuals who may be granted asylum, however. Plus, refugees and aslyees are eligible to become LPRs one year after admission to the US.

6: The last notable feature of US immigration policy to mention is the Diversity Visa lottery, wherein each year 55,000 visas are allocated randomly to nationals from countries that have sent less than 50,000 immigrants to the US in the previous five years. To be eligible you must have a high-school education or equivalent, or have, within the past five years, a minimum of two years working in a profession requiring at least two years of training or experience. Spouses and minor unmarried children may also enter as dependents (in fact, dependents present a whole other set of issues that some friends of mine are currently working through, and which are admittedly too complex to go into here).

7: There are other programs and categories that fall under humanitarian relief or what-have-you but by and large, we can cut to the chase and get to how you become a US citizen: In order to qualify for US citizenship, an individual must have had LPR (green card) status for at least five years (three if you got it through a US-citizen spouse), be at least 18 years of age, demonstrate continuous residency, demonstrate a good moral character, pass English, US history and civics exams, and pay an application fee. (There are, of course, some exceptions.)

Whew, made it this far.

Is It a Good System?

It’s interesting to examine the above criteria and see how the current policies evolved in response to American history, but the most pressing question to ask right now, of course, is whether the above is actually a good system. While noting ruefully that there is no such thing as a perfect system where humans are involved in the design, there must be kudos given to some aspects of the current system.

  • When it comes to adults, the US citizenship requirements are sound.
  • The Diversity Visa lottery system’s randomness and focus upon countries with otherwise low rates of immigration to the US is appealing in terms of augmenting diversity as well as potentially providing avenues of escape to those in nations that may have difficulties otherwise in obtaining green cards.
  • Likewise, the shuffling between any one country can ostensibly make sense, unless, of course, one nation is experiencing significant trauma – but more on that later.
  • In essence, it covers most of the basics of what an immigration system ought to have…and by that I mean it addresses most of the basic issues, not that it addresses them well.

However, it is clear that the system has significant flaws, among which are:

  • There aren’t that many ways for an illegal immigrant to become a citizen in a realistic fashion given the volume of illegal immigrants within the US.
  • All the caps – those of the H-1B visa types in particular – are set at what is likely far too low a level, given the record number of applications received in recent years. Hence the recent reintroduction of the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act, a bill sponsored by Chuck Grassley and Jim Durbin, that would basically attempt to set up a preferential system for foreign students educated in the US, on top of numerous proposals to increase the caps.
  • It can disproportionately favor those who have obtained degrees over individuals of otherwise significant abilities.
  • The extant visa programs definitely allow room for potential abuse, such as outsourcing labor to cheaper foreign workers rather than prioritizing American citizens in job hunts first.

Key Considerations

To take a quick step back before I outline some specifics that I think would improve the US immigration system, let’s detail key considerations when it comes to immigration in general. Given human nature, secure borders to a nation-state are necessary to preserve the rule of law and the appeal of citizenship, not to mention delineate relative advantages. Immigration is equally necessary to the vibrancy and vitality of any developed country with sufficient wealth that the natural birth rate is below the replacement rate, resulting in aging demographics (simply because as people get wealthier, they tend to have fewer children on average). Furthermore, there is often a moral component to immigration, hence clauses and categories addressing the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. Beyond even that, when it comes to the US – a truly unique state in the course of human events – there is a distinctly American ideal of a playing field at least partially based in merit. Even if it is over-romanticized and not wholly realistic much of the time, the uniquely American vision of a nation wherein any person willing to adhere to democratic republican values, work hard and contribute as a citizen should be given a fair chance to do so. Just because it is an ideal that may seem illusory much of the time doesn’t mean it should be abandoned – that’s the exact point of an ideal.

One very important and potentially controversial note: Does birthright citizenship really make sense when it comes to favoring certain people for certain jobs over others? Although I am not quite settled in this conclusion, I don’t think it does unless it directly impedes your ability to perform well. If a worker from Mexico is hired by Amazon as a software developer because he or she does a job well, as good as or better than American citizens, and moreover is willing to accept a fair but lower wage, then what really matters is whether that person complies with all the requirements of a US citizen while they are here, such as paying taxes, obeying laws, etc. and most importantly their DEMONSTRATED INTENT to become a citizen. Just because you were born somewhere by a matter of sheer luck doesn’t mean that you should get preference over other workers IF they also wish to stay here permanently and are simply undergoing the process to do so. I unpack this viewpoint further below, as I think it is key to a more meritocratic approach to immigration.

A More Meritocratic Approach

But that isn’t to say that a more meritocratic approach to building our society isn’t to be broached. And especially when it comes to America’s unique place in the world, there’s a lot in favor of making our immigration system far more meritocratic. Why? Let’s run through a few reasons. One, to uphold that core American ideal of establishing a playing field for those willing to compete; two, America is a nation of immigrants, pure and simple, that has by and large achieved its current status in defiance of the usual issues that afflict rich, developed nations because of a constant, healthy influx of fresh talent in many spheres; and three, the current system is not a market designed to attract individuals of ability or accommodate those of potential ability.

So how would we go about making the US immigration system more meritocratic?

1: Abolish caps on H-1B and similar temporary worker visas. Instead, a preferential system with flexible limits would be introduced that would prioritize applicants on several key criteria: intended duration of residency, type of occupation, employer sponsorship, willingness to take general and occupation-specific aptitude tests and consequent scores, educational attainment (especially in the US), number of dependents, experience and proof of moral character.

This system could be broken down into maximum points per category, somewhat similarly to Canada’s, and instead of having a cap for total eligible participants instead there would be a very high bar of necessary points to essentially accomplish the same purpose. (A cap could be introduced as well, but it’d have to be much higher than current levels). For example, a married woman with three children who has a college degree who intends to stay in the US for a decade should be prioritized over a younger single male with a college degree who intends to stay only for a few years before returning home. (After all, the entire purpose is to see who will generate the most value to the US while they are present, right? In that case, those who are going to pay more in school fees and taxes, as well as live longer in the US and thereby are likelier to culturally assimilate more, should be preferred.) Furthermore, by making the criteria that much more rigorous and giving preference to those who are not only willing to compete in all categories but also perform highly, the actual volume of applicants that would make it far enough to generate a fair amount of work will definitely shrink.

Is such a system more meritocratic? Yes. Is it fair? I think it’s fairer than the current system, and in fact is more aligned with the demands of real life. Each category could be weighted differently, and the preferred types of occupations (given what is most necessary to augment the US labor pool at that time) could also shift.

2: For illegal immigrants in the US seeking pathways to citizenship, a similar system could be used, with actual duration of stay utilized instead of intended duration of residency. Again, in the case of illegal immigrants the weights of the system would shift, with experience perhaps prioritized over type of occupation.

3: The current preference system for families of US citizens isn’t too shabby, but again, optional expediting of green card processes based on proven ability should be utilized, as written out in more detail below.

4: Last but definitely not least, the pathway from H-1B visa to green card should be prioritized on not just employer sponsorships but an optional, even more rigorous battery of aptitude or occupation-specific tests as well as demonstrated residency in the US (physical presence prioritized, similarly to naturalization), plus, of course, any and all employers of visa holders. For example, H-1B visa holders with engineering degrees that pass the FE or PE engineering exams in the US should be prioritized over those when it comes to obtaining a green card. Most importantly, the Department of Labor certificates that there are insufficient US workers available for such a position should no longer be required, but ONLY if the applicants are applying for permanent green-card status, with those looking for citizenship prioritized.

Concluding Thoughts

This last one is probably one of my more controversial opinions, and to be frank, I am not even completely decided on it thus far. However, it’s never quite made sense to me, in light of American ideals, that workers born in America should be preferred over those seeking to become permanent residents, if in all other areas the latter is superior. If the immigrant wants to become a citizen and is equally skilled, and then is only differentiated by his or her willingness to accept a lower wage, well…in a market economy, it’s simply unfair to begin mandating minimum wages for every single occupation at even skilled levels. It’s up to the individual to protect his or her own best interests, and if they are willing to live on less in order to get a job that will allow them to get citizenship, then they should be allowed to do so. The key items here are first the INTENT and then DEMONSTRATION of permanent residency. That’s how to level the playing field – if at any point the applicants fail to qualify based on the already standing residency requirements, then their visa status is invalidated.

I imagine there will likely be plenty of responses detailing how incomplete and flawed my proposals above are. They may well be – but at the same time, their emphasis on individual intentions and more opportunities for demonstrating ability, plus prioritization of those who seek to live longer in the US and raise families therein, begin to address the root of the issues with US immigration. Whether or not my mechanisms would work, giving willing applicants more ways to demonstrate how committed and talented they are, and consequently how much more value they would create in the US, should be the ultimate goal.

Stray Notes

Existing aptitude tests that could easily suit my purposes already exist, e.g. CFA, GMAT, GRE, general IQ tests, etc. The applicant will bear that extra expense in exchange for moving up in priority and actually qualifying. Also, one could suppose that the aptitude tests would be already be factored in by employers’ willingness to sponsor a given person. Potentially, but even so, I think that federal criteria for citizenship should take the fact an individual is motivated enough to undergo additional tests to prove ability into account…not administer or develop new tests itself.

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