Immigration Reform: Once More, With More Meritocracy

Niraj Chokshi

If you want to move to the United States, it helps to have skills. Under the new Senate immigration bill, that would be truer than ever.

The reform effort from the Gang of 8 senators—an 844-page bill released last week—would set border security goals, grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, and reform the visa system. It also makes that system more meritocratic, experts say.

It's all part of a slow shift in focus from the landmark 1965 immigration reform law, says Edward Alden, a senior fellow specializing in immigration, trade and economic policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the project director for CFR's 2009 Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy. The focus in 1965 was on creating an egalitarian system that encouraged assimilation. The new effort focuses on the economic benefits of immigration.

“Over time, the United States has come to recognize, I think a lot more, the economic value of immigration and begun to think about ways to sort of shift more toward employment skills and education and things like that,” Alden said.

And that's apparent in the new Senate effort, which encourages the immigration of foreigners who hold advanced degrees in so-called STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Two caps on employment-based immigration would also be lifted altogether. To entice highly skilled immigrants, their spouses and children would be eligible for green cards. And there would be no limit to the number of immigrants allowed for so-called “extraordinary” abilities—certain outstanding academics, high-profile athletes, upper-echelon corporate executives, some doctors, etc.

The bill also establishes a merit-based point system like the ones used by several other countries including Canada. Points would be awarded based on education, employment, length of residence in the U.S. and other considerations. More points means a better chance at one of the 120,000 available visas, a number that could rise depending on demand and domestic unemployment in a given year. A second, unlimited set of merit visas would be available to foreign workers who have been in the U.S. for at least 10 years.

“It’s changing our immigration system to a more skills-based system,” says Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst on immigration issues at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. "... This is movement towards a merit-based visa system."

The Senate bill makes that shift by focusing less on family-based immigration. It reduces the number of categories for family visas from four to two, eliminating the ability of U.S. citizens to bring over siblings. But that doesn't necessarily mean the plan is anti-family: it actually frees up more family visas by not counting the spouses or unmarried minor children of legal permanent residents toward that visa cap.

“That liberates quite a lot of places,” said Madeleine Sumption, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “In some ways, actually, there’s quite a lot of family-friendly material in the bill.” The Senate bill would allow the spouses of highly skilled immigrants who hold H-1B visas to work, for example.

The bill doesn't focus exclusively on highly skilled workers, of course. A share of visas will be available simply to skilled workers and other professionals. And there are visas available for lower-skilled workers—those without a bachelor's degree—in areas where unemployment is not too high. A pathway to permanent residence would be available to them, too, but through a merit-based system.

The bill is just a starting point—one subject to amendment and modifications—but it sends a clear message to would-be immigrants, experts say: if you want to move here, pick up some useful skills.