There are two major problems with our legal-immigration system: One, it focuses too little on skills, and two, the part of it that does focus on skills is poorly designed. A new proposal would address both issues. It’s an updated version of the RAISE Act announced at the White House today by Republican senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue; at the event, President Trump called it “the most significant reform to our immigration system in half a century” and promised “billions and billions” in taxpayer savings.
One plausible estimate holds that just 6.5 percent of U.S. immigrants are given their green cards on the basis of economic merit. About 13 percent are admitted on the basis of employment more generally, but that system does not make particularly fine distinctions based on economic potential and bizarrely imposes a cap on each sending country.
Far more common is family-based immigration. We don’t just let immigrants bring their spouses and minor children but also give preferences to siblings, parents, and adult children, enabling the phenomenon known as “chain migration.” We also give out 50,000 green cards each year (about 5 percent of the total) on the basis of diversity, meaning applicants are selected literally at random from countries that don’t provide “enough” immigrants through other categories.
The new RAISE Act would take a sledgehammer to this system, dramatically reducing low-skilled immigration and revamping our system for skilled immigration. It would cut immigration by more than 40 percent immediately, and by half in a decade. (It would not affect temporary “nonimmigrant” visas such as the H-1B, which also need reform.)
It would end the diversity lottery and preferences for family members aside from spouses, minor children, and elderly parents in need of care. And it would put those seeking green cards on the basis of employment — 140,000 of which would be available annually, the same number as today — through a new point system similar to those used in other developed countries.
That point system is a thing of beauty. Immigrants would be scored on a scale of zero to 100, though in practice it’s more like a scale of zero to 45 — someone with a perfect score would need a Nobel Prize (25 points), an Olympic medal (15), and $1.8 million invested in a business (12), for instance. More typically, potential immigrants would be scored based on their level of education, their English fluency, their age (with ten points for those 26 to 30 and zero points for those 50 and up), and the salary they’ve been offered (with 13 points for compensation at least triple the median salary of the state where the job is located, and no points for an offer less than 50 percent above the median). Importantly, if an applicant wished to bring a spouse, the spouse’s education, age, and language skills would count for 30 percent of a combined score.
Those without at least 30 points would be ineligible, and ties would be broken by (in descending order) education, language, and age. Immigrants admitted through the point system would be ineligible for welfare benefits for five years.
The updated RAISE Act is a terrific opening bid for immigration reform, but it’s not perfect. My own biggest objection is that the dramatic cuts to overall immigration levels are unnecessary and could doom the bill’s political chances. If we reorient the system around skills, we ensure that each immigrant is a net contributor to our fiscal well-being and doesn’t compete with the low-skilled Americans who can afford new competition the least. That makes it less desirable — I would say makes it undesirable — to cut the overall level of immigration. True, there is a limit to how many immigrants we can handle at once, no matter how skilled they are, and we can debate what that limit is. But shifting from low-skilled immigrants to high-skilled immigrants is an enormous improvement by itself.
It also might pick an unnecessary fight to limit refugee green cards to 50,000, as the bill would do. That number isn’t too unusual historically, but it’s less than half the ceiling Obama set for 2017 before Trump took office, and the RAISE Act’s other reforms create enough room to allow in some more refugees — the most sympathetic class of low-skill immigrants. (Despite Trump’s initial attempt to bring the number down to 50,000 this year, a good guess is that we’ll take in around 70,000.)
The updated RAISE Act is a terrific opening bid for immigration reform.
After all, it will be hard enough to get immigration reform through Congress without such controversial measures. Both big businesses and many on the left are beholden to high levels of immigration, low-skill and high-, and a filibuster will require 60 votes in the Senate where Republicans have only 52.
In other words, Cotton and Perdue will need to assemble a bipartisan coalition dedicated to the proposition that the world’s most powerful nation shouldn’t be handing out visas through random lotteries, and instead should choose to admit those immigrants who will most advance our nation’s economic interests. That will no doubt prove much harder than it should be, but if they pull it off, it will be a major (and rare) win for Trump’s brand of conservatism.
— Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.