U.S. Merit-Based Immigration Legislation Coming This September

President Trump confirmed that he will be introducing the largest legislative overhaul to the U.S. immigration system in almost 60 years this September. This is following a series of proclamations that the U.S. president has signed since the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, including a temporary ban on U.S. green cards (healthcare workers are exempted), work visas and the closure of U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. This time the focus will be on U.S. merit-based immigration legislation.

Details of the proposed overhaul of the legal immigration system remain sketchy and come mostly from media reports. At its core, however, the proposal seeks to move the United States away from a system that is predominantly family based and toward one that favors applicants with desirable labor-market attributes, such as Registered Nurses, to be selected using a points system. The proposal of a U.S. merit-based immigration points system both looks to the mechanisms adopted by other high-income countries for selecting economic migrants and revives some elements of prior U.S. legislative proposals. In theory this will be done in a way that prioritizes the highest-skilled workers while protecting American jobs. The proposal wants to replace the longstanding family-based immigration policy with one favoring financially self-sufficient, highly-skilled immigrants, using an easy-to-navigate, point-based selection system in order to determine eligibility.

While the total number of visas available each year would essentially remain at current levels, the distribution of those visas would change significantly.

Visa CategoryCurrent % of VisasProposed % of Visas
Employment/Skills Based12%57%
Family66%33%
Humanitarian22%10%
Comparison of Current and Proposed Immigration System

What Is a Points-Based System?

A points-based immigration system is an immigration system where an applicant’s eligibility to immigrate is determined by whether that applicant is able to score above a threshold number of points in a scoring system. This might include factors such as education level, connection with the country, language fluency, existing job offer, or other factors. Applicants may also have additional criteria that is needed to satisfy a points-based immigration system, such as no criminal record or no involvement with terrorist organizations.

Points-based immigration systems are nothing new. This immigration model was first adopted by Canada in 1967, followed by Australia in 1972, New Zealand in 1991, Denmark and Netherlands in 2008, United Kingdom in 2010 and more recently Austria, Japan and South Korea.

Lessons learned from these counties indicate that points-based systems require frequent tweaking in order to be successful. One concern is the historically slow pace of U.S. immigration legislation. This will require a greater level of planning in order to successfully implement a U.S. merit-based immigration points system.

Proposed U.S. Merit-based Immigration Points System

While the exact details of what will be in the forthcoming legislative proposal are not clear, the most recent iteration of this proposal in 2019 would require an applicant to obtain 30 points. Points would be awarded as follows:

  • Age – the maximum 10 points would go to persons aged 26–30. Persons over 51 would receive zero points.
  • Education – foreign bachelor’s degree equivalent of US bachelor’s degree, 5 points
  • English Language Proficiency – over band score of 6.5 on IELTS, 6–8 points
  • Job Offer – based on average RN wages, 5–10 points

It is not known at this time whether this previously proposed points formula will be amended slightly in favor of applicants in the upcoming legislative proposal.

Pros and Cons

Advocates of a U.S. merit-based immigration system point out that it is essential that ‘merit’ is defined as ‘the ability to contribute positively to the nation’s economy.’ When the economy is expanding and domestic unemployment rates are low and there is a demonstrated need for workers by a particular employer or in a particular job sector, immigrant workers with needed skills could be admitted in greater numbers. Annual limits should be flexible, expanding when labor markets are tight and contracting when jobs are scarce.

A U.S. merit-based immigration system should also preserve an essential role for employers in choosing desired workers. Julia Gelatt is a Senior Policy Analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. She says that in Canada, Australia and other countries with traditional points-based systems that the selection of workers based on factors such as language skills, educational attainment and field of work has led to high levels of “brain waste”. This is the problem of foreign-trained doctors driving taxis, for example. Over time, these systems were changed to prioritize workers with in-country experience and employment offers. The U.S. system has much lower levels of brain waste. That is because employers are the best judges of which workers are poised to succeed in their line of work.

Jeremy Neufeld is an immigration policy analyst with the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C. He also thinks that a merit-based system as constructed in other countries can be further improved upon in the United States. Neufeld observed that “Ultimately, what the case for points-based immigration misses is what every HR professional already understands: There is no one simple scorecard to identify talent. A firm wouldn’t hire only on the basis of age, years of work and years of education. Our immigration system shouldn’t work that way either.”

What’s Next?

The need for sweeping immigration reform is supported by both political parties. In fact, this debate goes back at least to the first term of President George W. Bush.

While agreeing on the need for change, politically no substantive changes have been made. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic that has caused severe shocks to the economy. This is a short-term phenomenon that will correct itself as the pandemic subsides. However, we are also in a hyper-partisan election season where it would seem passing any legislation, regardless of its merits, seems unlikely and no side wants to see the other claim a victory on any issue. It really is a shame that immigration remains a political football at a time where there are pervasive and growing shortages of urgently needed, highly-skilled medical and nursing professionals across the United States. The current immigration does work to a point, but the opportunities for improvements would greatly benefit all Americans.

Learn more about how immigrants are vital to the healthcare workforce.