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What ‘merit-based’ immigration means in different parts of the world

A naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Editor’s note: The White House is seeking to create a “merit-based” immigration system rather than one based on family reunification. We turned to The Conversation’s global network of scholars to get their insight on how merit-based systems work in other parts of the world.

Kevin Johnson, dean and professor of public interest law and Chicana/o studies, University of California, Davis, United States

President Donald Trump has called for overhauling the current U.S. immigration laws. Currently, the laws give priority to providing visas for family members of people already in the U.S. Trump and his Republican colleagues want to replace this with a primarily “merit-based” system.

To this end, Trump endorsed the RAISE Act in February 2017. Republicans, including President Trump, continue to push certain elements of it like reducing the ability of immigrants already in the country to bring in their relatives.

The RAISE Act sought to cut annual legal immigration in half, from 1 million to 500,000. It would do so by reducing the total number of family-sponsored green cards from 226,000 to 88,000. Cuts to family-based immigration would primarily affect prospective immigrants from Mexico, China and India, the three nations that today send the most immigrants to the United States.

Under the RAISE Act, immigrants admitted based on a new points system based on “merit” would make up a majority of those who receive green cards. Visa applicants would earn points for higher paid job offers, English-language proficiency, advanced degrees, and the ability to make investments of more than US$1 million in the United States.

Reducing legal immigration will likely increase the pressures for undocumented immigration. Right now, there are already roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. A merit-based system will mean fewer families are able to be reunited with loved ones through legal immigration. It also will not address the high demand in the United States for low- and medium-skilled workers in the agricultural, construction and service industries, which currently employs many undocumented immigrants.

Alex Reilly, director of the public law and policy research unit, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide, Australia

In 2015-16, Australia accepted 189,770 permanent migrants through its skilled and family immigration streams. In addition, Australia permanently resettled just under 18,000 refugees and other humanitarian migrants. This has been the level of migration to Australia for more than 10 years, adding nearly 1 percent to the Australian population of 24 million every year. This is a considerably larger proportion than the U.S. admits through its migration programs.

Twenty years ago, more migrants came through the family stream than the employer stream. By 2015-16, however, 67.7 percent of migrants came through the skilled stream. This change is a direct result of government policy prioritizing skilled migration because of its contribution to the economy.

However, these figures are deceptive, as numbers in the skilled migration stream include partners and dependents of primary applicants. So approximately half of all skilled migrants are actually family members of skilled migrants who do not have to meet the eligibility requirements of the primary applicant.

There are two pathways for skilled migration. The first, general skilled migration, requires applicants to work in an eligible skilled occupation. Most of these skills are in professional areas such as medicine or engineering, or trades in demand in the economy such as plumbers and electricians. The list is updated regularly based on an assessment of Australia’s economic needs.

Visas for this group are awarded on a points system similar to what is being proposed in the U.S. Points are awarded for age, English-language proficiency, skilled employment outside Australia, skilled employment in Australia and qualifications that are linked to occupations on the skilled occupation list. There are also points available for an Australian education, being accredited in a community language, studying in regional Australia, partner qualifications and completing a professional year in Australia. Although migrants in this skilled stream are highly qualified, they do not necessarily find employment in their area of expertise and many remain underemployed.

The second pathway is for skilled migrants with an employer sponsor. This pathway is open to migrants with wider range of skills and has the advantage of migrants being in guaranteed employment when they first arrive in Australia. Employers must demonstrate that they have a skilled position available, and that there are no Australians willing or able to take up the position. This requires employers to have advertised jobs locally before seeking migrants to do the work.

Almost all employer-sponsored migrants apply from within Australia, and 44 percent of independent skilled migrants also apply from within Australia, transitioning from temporary work, international student and working holiday maker visas. This reflects the very high number of temporary migrants working and studying on these visas in Australia – 750,000 in December 2016.

Mireille Paquet, professor of political science, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

In 2015-2016, Canada admitted 271,845 permanent immigrants. Canada’s permanent migration inflows resemble those of Australia but are generally smaller than those received by the United States. Immigration is the largest contributor to population growth in Canada since the early 2000s.

The permanent immigration program is divided into three main streams: economic, family and humanitarian. The economic stream accounted for about 60 percent of the total permanent immigration to Canada in 2015-2016. Family made up 24 percent of the total immigration to the country. These proportions have remained relatively stable over the last 15 years, with economic immigration representing the largest share of those selected for permanent settlement in the countries.

The economic stream for permanent immigration is currently divided into several programs. The Federal Skilled Workers program is often used as the flagship example of Canada’s approach to selecting immigrants in relation to their expected economic contributions. U.S. President Donald Trump has praised it on the grounds that it would create economic mobility for both native-born Americans and immigrants.

To be considered, candidates must meet baseline criteria for work experience, language proficiency in at least one of the two official languages – French or English – and education. Candidates are then assessed using a 100-point selection grid that considers factors such as education, experience, age, arranged employment in Canada and adaptability. Adaptability refers to spouse or partner language level, past work studies in Canada for the applicant and spouse or partner, and the existence of relatives in Canada.

To be eligible, a candidate must score 67 points or higher. The pool of eligible candidates are then ranked. The highest-ranking individuals receive invitations to apply for permanent residence. This system, called Express Entry, relies on a comprehensive ranking system that involves a total of 1,000 factors. The minister of immigration issues the number of invitations to be extended every month.

Despite a sophisticated assessment system, research demonstrates that immigrants to Canada still face challenges in finding jobs and achieving economic mobility in the short and medium term. Gender, race and geographic position in the country and employment sector are all factors that affect economic integration of immigrants to Canada.

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