The Agenda

Thoughts on the Point-Based Merit System

Ross Douthat offers a contrarian and somewhat pessimistic take on the politics of immigration reform:

So you have an economic context in which upward mobility looks more difficult and optimism more unwarranted, and a political context in which anxious white voters are already feeling alienated from the G.O.P.’s economic message (or lack thereof). Against this background, it’s almost painfully easy to see how a sweeping immigration reform blows up in the Republican Party’s face. First, it persuades downscale, culturally-conservative whites that the party really, really doesn’t have their interests and values at heart. Second, it does win the G.O.P. a second look from some Hispanic voters — but because racial wealth gaps make those voters even more economically anxious than whites with similar incomes, they don’t see any reason to actually start voting for a party that doesn’t have an economic agenda beyond austerity and entitlement reform. Third, it gradually adds more low-skilled immigrants to the voting rolls at a time when trends in the economy and the culture make it harder for them to rise into the middle class — and absent such upward mobility, these voters, too, prove less-than-eager to embrace the party of free markets, limited government and American exceptionalism.

One can make a more sanguine argument about how the politics of immigration reform will play out for Republicans over time. Sean Trende, for example, has suggested that creating a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently residing in the U.S. won’t necessarily expand the Democratic coalition. But of course Sean doesn’t address Ross’s central anxiety, which is the increase in less-skilled immigration that is embedded in the Senate immigration bill, an issue that I’ve written about at length (to the chagrin of some of you, I’m sure). And earlier today, Dylan Matthews of Wonkblog, an advocate of a significant increase in less-skilled immigration, reported that the bill creates a path for less-skilled “temporary” workers admitted under W visas to eventually become U.S. citizens:

The bill allows for roughly two tracks by which eligible visa holders can get green cards. The first establishes a point-based merit system for green card applicants. You get varying numbers of points based on how educated you are, what field you work in, what skills you have, what family ties you have in the U.S., and so forth. The second is intended to reduce the existing backlog of employment and family-based green card applications, as well as provide for people who’ve been in the U.S. for at least 10 years in some legal capacity. The latter “long-term alien workers” channel is not open to W visa holders. Nor is the track two employment-based channel, which only applies to people in the U.S. before the bill’s enactment, necessarily excluding W visa holders. But it appears that the other routes are, in fact, available to guest workers. W visa holders are not explicitly barred from accumulating points under track one, or applying under the family green card provisions of track two.

Keep in mind that because that W visa holders are allowed to bring their spouses and children to the U.S., it seems likely that many will give birth in the U.S., and so these households will immediately become “mixed-status” households. Failure to renew W visas will cause family disruption, thus making it less likely the the immigration enforcement authorities will fail to renew visas. And the point-based merit system Dylan references is rather idiosyncratic in terms of how it distributes points. Zhang & Attorneys, L.P., an immigration law firm, has provided a detailed summary of the point-based merit system, which is divided into a skilled tier and a less-skilled tier: starting in the fifth fiscal year after passage of the law, 50 percent of these merit-based visas will be allocated to immigrants in each tier. 

For Tier 1, a PhD will earn an applicant 15 points, a Master’s alone will earn 10 points, and a BA alone will earn 5 points. English language proficiency will earn 10 points. Employment in a high-demand occupation, as determined by requests for H-1 visas, will earn 10 points. Points will be granted on the basis of the number of years an immigrant has worked in an occupation that requires extensive preparation. Employing at least 2 employees in jobs that demand extensive preparation will yield 10 points. Civic involvement will yield at most 2 points. Having siblings or married sons or daughters over the age of 31 will yield 10 points. The maximum score is set at 100 points.

The rules for Tier 2, the less-skilled tier, are subtly different, e.g., 10 points are granted to those with “exceptional employment records,” the rules for English language proficiency are more forgiving, and less-skilled immigrants who have been employed as primary caregivers will receive 10 points. Otherwise, the rules are roughly the same. 

Whereas the point-based merit system employed by Canada and Australia are designed to guarantee that immigrants have high skill levels and are likely to earn above-average incomes, thus ensuring that the immigrants in question are less likely to draw on means-tested benefits over the life course, the proposed U.S. point-based system makes it in many respects easier for less-skilled immigrants with large U.S.-based families than skilled immigrants with small families or without U.S. family ties. If our goal is to craft an immigration policy that serves the interests of foreign-born Americans and second-generation Americans, this makes sense. But if our goal is to admit immigrants who are likely to earn high wages (which, bluntly, can be taxed to finance social services, etc.), this doesn’t necessarily make much sense. 

To sum up: this is not an awesome bill. If it were up to me, we’d scrap the W visas — we ought to revisit the question of a guest worker provision at some later date — and increase the number of visas for skilled workers by a commensurate amount. The point-based system would make a high degree of English language proficiency a sine qua non, and it would increase the share of Tier 1 from 50 percent to 75 or 90 percent of the merit-based stream. There are many other aspects of the law we might revise, including the path to citizenship, but these measures would be my first priority. 

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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