The hotly contested and emotional issue of immigration has figured prominently in both the Republican and Democratic primary contests. The motivations of candidates on both sides of the aisle are clearly political, perhaps cynically so in some instances. But neither emotion nor partisan politics is a good basis for policymaking, especially on issues that cut close to a nation’s culture and its sense of security.
Fortunately, when it comes to immigration, the Census Bureau offers clear data, as do its equivalents abroad—and these data chart a clear rise in skill levels among immigrants. Before 1970, less than one-quarter of immigrants to the United States had a bachelor’s degree, and barely 12 percent had higher degrees. In the last decade or so, these proportions have risen, respectively, to almost 33 percent and just over 16 percent. They now rival proportions among the native population, where some 32 percent have bachelor’s degrees and 12.6 percent hold higher degrees. World Bank, UNESCO, and Eurostat statistics indicate that a similar dynamic is at work elsewhere. Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and France have all seen a jump of 10 to 20 percentage points in the proportion of college-educated migrants in recent years. University degrees are far from the only measure of skill, but they are indicative.
This shift should be welcomed, since scholarly research shows that better-educated populations are generally more peaceful, productive, innovative, and prosperous. If the proportion of college-educated immigrants were to exceed the proportion of college-educated natives in each host country, it would help to counterbalance many of the economic and social burdens imposed on a society by immigration. And because economic success naturally facilitates integration, such trends also promise to reduce tensions among groups.
The current trend toward higher levels of education among immigrants may not last, however. It may simply reflect an increase in the proportion of immigrants leaving one region—Asia. According to the Census Bureau, immigrants from Asia have the highest average levels of educational attainment. Over half of Asian immigrants to the United State in 2012, the most recent year for which complete data exist, held bachelors’ degrees, and 24.5 percent carried higher degrees. Those figures are well above proportions in the native U.S. population and in Asia as a whole. By contrast, just 12.9 percent of Latin American immigrants to the United States have bachelors’ degrees, and only 4.2 percent have postgraduate degrees.
Immigration flows from Asia to the United States are fairly recent, and as historical trends make clear, the first wave of immigrants from a particular region typically has more confidence, more money, superior language skills, and higher education levels than the general population from which it emerges. Once these pioneers establish a foothold in a host country, less well-educated migrants follow. Trends toward higher education levels among immigrants will likely reverse as the recent Asian pioneers establish successful communities in their adopted countries.
Australia and Canada have figured out how to sustain the flow of higher-skilled immigrants: they prioritize considerations of skill first when granting resident status. The United States, by contrast, focuses mostly on the immigrant’s connections to people already here and so naturally favors those coming from areas that have provided the most immigrants to date. Though Canada and Australia allow for compassionate family reunions, they emphasize skills through what might be called a point system. In Australia, applicants get points for functionality in English; in Canada they get points for English or French. In both countries, applicants get additional credit for higher levels of education and desirable occupational skills, and for the ability to transfer assets. Once the applicant surpasses a particular point threshold, he or she gains admittance and a work permit. The approach works: between 38 and 67 percent of immigrants to Canada and Australia have at least some college (depending on the particular data source used). In the United States, the U.K., and France, all of which use personal connections instead of a point system, the percentages are much lower.
Large flows of even the best-educated, job-ready, law-abiding newcomers can undermine cultural coherence. Conflict is practically inevitable, and some societies are better equipped to cope with these challenges than others. But switching to a points system that rewards skills and education would—if nothing else—take some of the emotion out of the immigration issue.
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