President Trump has sparked controversy for his plans to build a wall along the Mexican border, for banning travelers from certain countries from entering the U.S., and for stepping up deportations of those here illegally. But in his address to Congress on Tuesday night, Trump spent more time discussing reforms to our legal immigration system, which currently allows some 1 million people a year to enter the country. Most pointedly, Trump pledged to change the current family-based system to one that is skills- or merit-based—as other developed nations have done. “It is 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,” Trump said. It’s an idea likely to spark as much opposition from today’s immigration advocates within the Democratic Party as anything else that Trump is proposing. But if he succeeds, Trump would dramatically transform the flow of newcomers in ways that could boost America’s economic output.
Our current legal immigration system is the result of the far-reaching and somewhat unanticipated consequences of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. That law abolished the national quotas that Congress had enacted in 1921 and replaced them with a framework that gave preference to the relatives of American citizens. One of the bill’s chief backers, Senator Ted Kennedy, proclaimed that the changes were modest and that the legislation, “contrary to the charges in some quarters, will not inundate America with immigrants.” He also confidently predicted that immigrants who came here under the new system would not become a “public charge.”
But by simultaneously lifting bans on immigration from some regions and giving preference to the relatives of U.S. citizens (including the adult parents and adult siblings of those already living here), the law generated a big increase in the number of people wanting to come, and the waiting list grew enormous. Under pressure, Congress consistently began raising the quotas, and legal immigration rose steadily, from 296,697 in 1965 to 1,051,031 in 2015. The demographics of immigration changed, too. Before the new legislation, those from Europe and Canada made up nearly seven in 10 legal immigrants. In 2015, however, Europeans and Canadians accounted for just 10 percent of new immigrants. By contrast, Asians made up 39 percent of legal newcomers, while immigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America constituted one-third of new legal arrivals.
The 1965 law also unleashed waves of illegal immigration. As newcomers made their way over from countries that had not previously sent many people to the United States, and as waiting lists grew longer, millions of would-be residents simply came without gaining permission—often doing so because they now had relatives or friends here who could accommodate them.
Around the rest of the world, countries have moved away from a system based so heavily on family ties. Worried about the influx of unskilled immigrants during an economic recession in the early 1990s, Australia began putting more emphasis on individuals with needed job skills. From 1996 through 2006, the country dramatically changed its balance of permanent immigrants, with those gaining entry through skills increasing from 29 percent to 70 percent of all newcomers. The Australian Government Productivity Commission laid out the country’s philosophy in a recent study: “While some positive rate of immigration is likely to benefit Australia over the long term, the gains depend on having a system that attracts immigrants who are younger and more skilled,” the report noted.
Today, after more than two decades of change, Australia maintains a list of skilled occupations for which practitioners get visa preferences. Applicants for visas must qualify by accumulating points for various characteristics, including competency in English, post-secondary education or certification in a trade, and a history of skilled employment. The emphasis pays off in workers who more quickly integrate into the country’s economy and boost its economic output. According to the Productivity Commission report, the median annual income of Australia’s skilled immigrants is above that of the population in general, while the income of those entering the country under family preferences is below the median. And family-preference immigrants have higher rates of unemployment than the overall population, while skilled migrants are more likely to be employed.
Reformers have tried to move America toward such a system, but opponents denigrate the idea as a violation of “family values.” When in 2007 Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy proposed reform legislation that would adopt a skills approach, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama objected, as did Hillary Clinton, claiming that the reforms would separate families. This idea, however, ignores the fact that most immigrants come here willingly, not by force; no other country assumes that when an immigrant arrives, he gains the right to bring over his entire family. Under most skills-based systems, workers who gain entry can bring their spouses and their minor-age children—but not adult relatives.
Back in 2007, Obama displayed his ignorance of immigration history when he suggested that a merit-based point system would have blocked the ancestors of many Americans from entering the country. “How many of our forefathers would have measured up under this point system? How many would have been turned back at Ellis Island?” he asked. The answer: not many. One reason so many of the immigrants from America’s last Great Migration—the period between 1880 and the mid-1920s—succeeded is precisely because they were, relative to the American population of the time, well-suited to our economic needs and job market. A 1998 National Research Council report prepared for the so-called Jordan Commission, the special task force on immigration led by former congresswomen Barbara Jordan, noted “that the newly arriving immigrant nonagricultural work force [of the Great Migration] . . . was (slightly) more skilled than the resident American labor force.” According to that study, 27 percent of immigrants were skilled laborers, compared with 17 percent of that era’s native-born workforce. By contrast, many immigrants arriving since 1965 have been less skilled than the average American. Harvard economist George Borjas estimated that while immigration from 1980 through 1995 increased the number of college graduates in America by 4 percent, it boosted the ranks of unskilled workers by 21 percent.
The real reason for opposition to skills-based immigration reform is political. Many of the advocacy groups that defend the status quo are primarily composed of immigrants who have come here through family ties. Maintaining that system ensures that the flow of immigrants from parts of the world that dominate our migration streams now—especially Asia and Central America—will continue. It also means that the power of immigration advocacy groups will continue to grow, strengthening political blocs that almost universally support Democrats.
Donald Trump, though, is in position to give the country an immigration policy similar to what most other developed nations have adopted. He’s made a good start, framing the argument on Tuesday as a sensible, pro-immigration way to boost America’s economy. Now he’ll need political skills to win the battle.
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