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As Trump Administration Seeks “Merit-Based” Immigration, MPI Report Examines Points-Based Systems in Canada, Australia & Beyond
Press Release
Tuesday, April 9, 2019

As Trump Administration Seeks “Merit-Based” Immigration, MPI Report Examines Points-Based Systems in Canada, Australia & Beyond

WASHINGTON — In making the case for “merit-based” immigration and a greater focus on prioritizing the entry of skilled workers—which would mark a sharp break from the primacy of family reunification in the U.S. immigration system—President Trump and his allies point to the examples of Canada and other countries with points-based systems such as Australia and New Zealand.

These countries select economic-stream immigrants by using a combination of employer demand and allocation of points for characteristics such as education, host-country professional experience and linguistic skills. In contrast to this human capital-driven selection system, the United States has a demand-driven model where employers choose the foreign workers they need and petition for their entry.

A new report from the Migration Policy Institute’s Transatlantic Council on Migration compares these two models, going beyond the mechanics of their operation to examine the political and philosophical foundations that underpin each. The authors, Demetrios G. Papademetriou and Kate Hooper, note the convergence between the two models, with points-based selection systems now incorporating employer demand while employer-led systems include human-capital considerations. The U.S. system, for example, has introduced requirements on professional qualifications into both its temporary work visas (e.g. the H-1B, O and TN visas) and some of the employment-based immigrant visa categories in its permanent residence system.

The points-based system, as developed in Canada for example, appeals to politicians both for its transparency, since it involves clear and objective selection criteria, and its flexibility, as policymakers can adjust the qualification criteria and distribution of points in response to changing estimates of labor demand and evaluations of immigrants’ integration outcomes. Yet the authors note that for philosophical and political reasons, the United States is unlikely to adopt a full points-based system, even though such proposals were considered in Congress in 2007 and 2013.

Still, they write, there are important lessons that policymakers could apply to the U.S. context. These include:

  • Introducing more human-capital factors into the U.S. employer-led system that are linked to better long-term labor-market integration outcomes, such as education and professional experience (especially if acquired in the United States) and language skills.
  • Making greater use of temporary-to-permanent (“bridging”) visa pathways, to assess migrants’ suitability for long-term success and to provide greater opportunities for talented migrants to stay on a permanent basis.
  • Exploring opportunities for a greater degree of input by subnational (state) jurisdictions into selection decisions.
  • Paying closer attention to evidence of likely labor market needs and integration outcomes and using these data to constantly inform immigration priorities.

The active management of migration systems, with an eye to facilitating their smooth operation and ensure the continuing competitiveness of U.S. firms, is paramount. “The best systems are distinguished by their commitment to constant review and adaptation,” Papademetriou and Hooper conclude.

The report, Competing Approaches to Selecting Economic Immigrants: Points-Based vs. Demand-Driven Systems, is one in a new series from MPI’s Transatlantic Council on Migration focused on ways in which to build migration systems for a new age of economic competitiveness. Reports in the series will be collected here: www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/transatlantic-council-migration/building-migration-systems-competitiveness.

Read the selection systems report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/selecting-economic-immigrants-points-based-demand-driven-systems.


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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at local, national and international levels. MPI’s Transatlantic Council on Migration is a unique deliberative body that examines vital policy issues and informs migration policymaking processes across the Atlantic community.