Commentary | Immigration

A Points System Could Strengthen Employment-Based Immigration

Some of the Senate immigration bill’s proposals, particularly the legalization of unauthorized immigrants, could significantly strengthen employment-based immigration (EBI). An immigration system governed by the rule of law is highly unlikely as long as an extra-legal system is a viable option for employers and unauthorized workers. Legalization, in addition, is the only sensible way to clean up a debilitating mess the United States created and has allowed to fester for far too long.

The Senate bill’s proposal to increase the percentage of economic (mainly employment-based) immigrants (currently less than 20 percent), is closely related to two other proposals: the creation of a Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research (BILMR) and a points system for the selection of “merit-based” immigrants.

The challenge is to maximize the enormous potential advantages of immigration while minimizing the serious risks, especially from immigrants’ failure to successfully integrate into the American economy and society. The BILMR could improve migration management by helping to create and manage the points system and by providing data and research to facilitate evidence based decisions—a rarity in the dysfunctional American immigration system.

International evidence shows points systems to be effective tools to help calibrate migration with domestic labor market requirements. The main advantages include:

(1) Points systems can be configured to balance the interests of employers, workers, and the public:

  • Employers’ interests can be incorporated by giving major points for a job offer and attributes (like age and specific education, training, and experience) favored by employers.
  • Workers can be protected by giving major points for shortage occupations, above-market wage offers, extraordinary qualifications, or for other requirements to ensure that migrants primarily complement and do not compete with or cost less than domestic workers.
  • The public interest can be served by providing points for factors shown to cause foreign workers to succeed and by strengthening value added (productivity and quality), especially from occupations in short supply, language competency, occupational skills, age, family characteristics, relationships with permanent residents or citizens, the ability to support dependents, and the willingness to locate in places with labor shortages. The Canadian points-based system, for example, not only identified and documented foreign workers who succeeded and strengthened Canadian value-added economic policies, but also contributed to arguably the best-educated second generation of immigrants in the Western world and reduced income inequality (while the U.S. system has increased it), which bodes well for Canada’s economic and social future.

We should note, however, that a points system is only one component of a foreign worker selection system, designed to recruit skilled or “merit-based” workers and their families. In Canada, for example, 45.7 percent of all immigrants and 56.9 percent of all economic immigrants were selected through the points system in 2010.

(2) By making the reasons for importing foreign workers more objective and transparent, a points system helps garner public acceptance of immigration, a very important advantage for this highly contentious activity. Significantly, Canada invented the points system during the 1960s, when its new migrant racial and ethnic diversity policy could have sparked strong public protest but did not because the points system demonstrated that immigration was designed to strengthen the Canadian economy and society. Similarly, the British points system for highly skilled workers, introduced in 2001, moderated vocal opposition to the previous work permit system, which relied on opaque and uneven decisions by civil servants and, as in the United States, was dominated by those who could “game” the system.

(3) A points system can help to significantly improve foreign worker programs. Points can be changed to reflect research and experience. And a points system facilitates automation of the selection process (the efficiency of which is a major challenge for EBI systems that seek to adjust migration to dynamic market conditions), provides much more data to support a research-based system, and facilitates self-evaluation by prospective immigrants. International evidence likewise shows points systems to allow greater flexibility of foreign worker flows than an American-style legislatively determined cap system. Indeed, points can be configured to automatically reduce migrant flows during recessions and increase them during recoveries by, for example, awarding major points for job offers and labor shortages, which are naturally counter-cyclical.

Some of the criticisms that doomed a points system in the 2007 immigration reform effort will undoubtedly resurface. Business representatives commonly assert that employers are better qualified than government bureaucrats to select the foreign workers they need. This obviously is true, but newcomers to America are neighbors, residents, and citizens as well as workers. The government therefore has compelling reasons to ensure that immigrants are successfully integrated into neighborhoods and society as well as work. Employers, by contrast, might discount factors that facilitate integration (like language competence, acceptance of American values and institutions, high earnings experiences, and family characteristics). Moreover, the public interest is served by preventing employers and government agencies from substituting immigration for the recruitment and training of domestic workers or pursuing detrimental low-wage competitiveness policies, a losing strategy for high-income countries in a globalized economy. Thus, a points system should reflect national interests as well as those of particular stakeholders.

That said, since employers will be heavily involved in the consultation that produces points systems, it is hard to imagine that such a system would benefit them less than the present rigid, uncertain, and inefficient foreign worker programs.

Some immigrant advocates oppose a points system because they believe it would reduce the number of family visas. It should be stressed, however, that the political decision to favor economic migration has nothing to do with a points system, which is merely a tool to quantify and assign politically determined weights to EBIs. However, family considerations can be incorporated by giving points for family members’ qualifications and allowing relatives to sponsor qualified workers.

The major disadvantage of a points system is that it requires a highly professional staff and very good data systems, which should in any case be part of any EBI system.

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