WASHINGTON — President Trump spent his first weeks in office vowing to crack down on illegal immigration with deportations and other get-tough proposals. But when he went before Congress on Tuesday to lay out his agenda, he offered a far broader plan that echoes an approach long favored by mainstream Republicans for reshaping the nation’s immigration laws.
Mr. Trump’s call for a “merit-based” immigration system — one that puts a priority on skills and employability over family ties — revived a central element of the broad immigration compromise sought in 2007 by President George W. Bush, which paired stricter border enforcement with an eventual grant of legal status for many of the estimated 11 million immigrants illegally living in the United States. In a conversation with television news anchors at the White House on Tuesday, Mr. Trump said he would be open to such a deal, although he did not mention that in his speech to Congress.
Mr. Trump’s remarks in the speech focused instead on the merit-based system. “It’s a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially, yet in America, we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon,” Mr. Trump said. “Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, we will have so many more benefits.”
But such a system is viewed with skepticism by some Republicans who fear it would harm the economy by shutting out less-educated immigrants who fill vital jobs, such as farm and kitchen workers.Continue reading the main story
Democrats and those on the left have an even more sinister view of the idea, arguing that Mr. Trump’s emphasis on choosing the most skilled immigrants is a backdoor way to re-engineer American laws to filter out certain ethnicities and nationalities.
How the System Works
A vast majority of immigrants admitted to the United States are granted entry based on their family ties. Less than one-fifth are admitted through job-based preferences, and a similarly small number come in through refugee or asylum programs.
United States citizens may sponsor immediate family members — spouses, minor children and parents — for visas that are not subject to any caps. Their siblings and adult children get preferences under a program that provides a limited number of visas each year to citizens’ relatives. Legal permanent residents, those who have green cards, can also apply for visas for their spouses and children.
In 2014, of more than one million legal permanent residents admitted, 64 percent were either immediate relatives of American citizens or had been sponsored by family members. Fifteen percent received an employment-based preference and 13 percent came with refugee or asylum status, according to data compiled by the Migration Policy Institute, an independent research organization. An additional 5 percent were admitted through the State Department’s diversity lottery, a program that awards permanent residency to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.
How Merit Systems Work
Mr. Trump did not say how the government would carry out the changes he envisions. But he cited Canada’s merit-based system, in which immigrants are awarded points according to their educational and employment background, language proficiency and financial means, among other considerations. The highest scorers get priority for admission.
A points system was a feature of the 2007 immigration proposal that died in the Senate. Under that measure, employment attributes like education and skills would have accounted for more points than family relationships. Immigrants with family members living legally in the United States, either as citizens or permanent residents, would have seen their visa preferences ended or strictly limited. But employment-based visas would have increased substantially.
In that measure, temporary workers would have been barred from bringing family members to the United States unless they accepted a shorter-term visa and could show they would not become primarily dependent on government benefits. Mr. Trump’s mention in his speech of financial self-sufficiency for immigrants seemed to suggest he would favor such a standard.
The Effect on Jobs
Mr. Trump argued that the current immigration system is “straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon,” and made the case that one based on merit would provide an economic boost to American workers.
“It will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages and help struggling families, including immigrant families, enter the middle class,” the president said. “And they will do it quickly, and they will be very, very happy, indeed.”
Mr. Trump’s assertion is based on the view that because the current system allows people to immigrate to the United States without regard for their employability or skill level, it creates an oversupply of low-skilled workers, who in turn drive down job opportunities and wages for Americans with a high school diploma or less.
Critics of the merit-based system say the reality is not so simple.
The number of family-based immigrants who enter the United States each year is a tiny fraction of the total work force, and there is no guarantee that reducing the number of those immigrants or substituting people with better education and skills would increase either wages or employment opportunity.
“There’s certainly a rationale for increasing the number of people who get permanent residency who employers want to hire for both lower-skilled jobs and higher-skilled jobs, but there’s no reason that can’t be accomplished without still allowing people to bring family members in,” said Stuart Anderson, the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan policy research organization, and a former senior immigration official under Mr. Bush.
“This is more of a political rationalization for just cutting out family categories, rather than some belief that if we got more highly skilled people, it would genuinely help the economy,” Mr. Anderson said.