Merit-based immigration alone is not the answer

Merit-based immigration alone is not the answer

One of the main points of emphasis in President Trump’s State of the Union Address was the need to reform immigration policy. He asserted that his administration and Congress were working closely on a comprehensive immigration reform that centered on four pillars: a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, increased border security, reduction in family-based immigration and elimination of the the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, more commonly known as the green card lottery.

In discussing these final two pillars, Trump emphasized the need for a shift towards merit-based immigration, prioritizing immigration applications based on their skills and education rather than familial relations. This would be a marked shift in immigration policy and one that could have detrimental repercussions on both America’s economy and its values if executed poorly.

Immigration restrictionists argue that the current immigration system allows too many less-educated immigrants to enter the United States, which in turn depresses wages, prevents efficient assimilation and incites gang violence. They argue that the implementation of a merit-based immigration system would prioritize those that are highly-skilled and more employable, as well as less likely to require public assistance and accept low-wage jobs. More often than not this takes the form of a point system where potential immigrants “earn” points for skills that are deemed beneficial to the United States and its economy such as degrees and language proficiencies.

Merit-based systems are often connected with efforts to reduce immigration across the board, a position supported by hardline immigration hawks and nationalists. These immigration cuts were included in the merit-based immigration bill proposed late last year by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue. That bill halves the number of family-sponsored immigrants, the greatest portion of immigrants, and is coupled with only a modest increase in merit-based immigrants. 

A merit-based system often does a poor job of characterizing the broad economic benefits of low-skill immigrants. A healthy economy requires both high-skill and low-skill immigrants. 

Highly-skilled workers like the ones that Trump touts help push the boundaries of our economy. Silicon Valley is a testament to the efforts of highly-skilled immigrants. More often than not, highly-skilled immigrants pay higher taxes and require fewer public services, an economic impact which can not be ignored. It is a good idea for any nation to signal that these are the type of immigrants it wants and a system that incentivizes and increases their immigration could be a boon for the economy. 

At the same time, lower-skilled immigrants help provide the foundation of our economy, populating the agricultural, manufacturing and construction industries that drive it. These are the sectors that have shown the most growth in recent years yet they also face labor shortages. 

The need for low-skill workers is predicated in the demographic decline of the United States, which stems from falling birth rates. With a reduced labor force, there is a greater need for workers in low-wage jobs. While most first-generation immigrants and their children generate more fiscal costs for state and federal governments, successive generations tend to move up the economy into positions where they pay higher taxes and require fewer benefits.

Even beyond the hard economic benefits, there are the difficult-to-quantify benefits of low-skill and family-based immigrants. Immigrants of all education and skill levels apply to immigrate to the United States for one reason: to create a better life for themselves and for their family. More often than not, this goal creates an internal desire to become civically-engaged and improve the country that has given them, their children and their grandchildren a chance to thrive. 

Some of these immigrants become teachers in impoverished areas, police officers in areas with high crime rates or small business and restaurant owners that fundraise for local schools. Moreover, the family support system provided under familial-based immigration is vital to the success and upward mobility of immigrants and their children. 

Other nations that use such as merit-based system have seen success and may rightly serve as models. But these nations admit a larger percentage of immigrants than the United States and do their best to account for the benefits of family-based immigration. 

The system envisioned by Trump and the immigration hawks in his administration does neither of those things. His policy rhetoric vilifies family-based immigration by using the term “chain migration,” replacing the image of reuniting families with that of an invading wave of foreigners exploiting our nation’s social safety net. This rhetoric is used to justify the massive cuts to family-based immigration and immigration as a whole, a move that flies in the face of our nation’s commitment to providing opportunity and safety for citizens of the world yearning for a chance to thrive.

This is not just a debate about immigration. This is another fight to shape the identity of America. Nationalists, Trump included, are attempting to reduce those tired and huddled masses yearning for freedom into rigid economic terms, dispassionately sorting through them and ultimately turning the majority away because they lack a college degree. This is not the vision we should allow to take hold in America.

Nathan Campbell is a senior majoring in environmental engineering. His column runs biweekly.

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