Who Would Lose in the ‘Merit-Based’ Immigration System Trump is Raving About?

By Deepa Iyer Mar 01, 2017

In his speech to Congress last night (February 28), President Trump reiterated his law-and-order approach to immigration that has paved the way for an alarming wave of raids around the nation. He also proposed a merit-based approach to legal immigration:

Protecting our workers also means reforming our system of legal immigration. The current, outdated system depresses wages for our poorest workers and puts great pressure on taxpayers. …Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, we will have so many more benefits. It will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages, and help struggling families, including immigrant families, enter the middle class.

A merit-based approach to immigration is not a new concept. In 2013, the Republican-dominated Senate considered a point system with various criteria such as education level, employment status, age and English-language proficiency that would be taken into consideration to obtain green cards.

But these proposals have consistently faced criticism because of the point system’s inherent biases that favor high-skilled workers and people with advanced degrees—who tend to be younger and male. In 2013, Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) argued that the merit-based approach in immigration reform legislation “… increases the amount of employment-based visas, immigration avenues that favor men over women by nearly a four to one margin.” Hirono also argued that many women in other countries do not have the same access to advanced education or job skills than men do, further decreasing their prospects of receiving green cards under a merit-based system.

A merit-based policy also de-emphasizes the cornerstone of the American immigration system: family immigration. According to the We Belong Together campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, almost 70 percent of women immigrants obtain their legal status via sponsorship by immediate family members. Their chances to enter the United States would be diminished under a merit-based system. In addition, women who labor in the informal economy as domestic workers or caregivers would also be disadvantaged by an approach that favors immigrants with particular job skills.

Trump’s proposed approach to legal immigration must also be understood in the broader context of the Administration’s immigration agenda, says Anil Kalhan, associate professor of law at Drexel University’s Kline School of Law. "The discourse on merit-based immigration undervalues the economic contributions made by people across the economy," Kalhan told Colorlines. "Such an approach has to be put into context of the Administration’s broader agenda to change the demographics of immigration in the United States altogether." In other words, a merit-based approach is coded language for what kind of immigrant is desirable in America today.

It is unclear whether high-skilled and educated individuals from certain countries will even avail themselves of a merit-based system given the climate of hostility towards immigrants, refugees and Muslims in the United States. In the wake of the hate violence in Oletha, Kansas, last week in which an Indian-American engineer was killed by a White Navy veteran spewing racial slurs, Indians—who use skilled worker or H-1B visas at high rates—are wondering whether they should even go to a country that might not want them.

In the meantime, immigration raids continue around the nation, and the government is expected to release a revised version of the Muslim ban which bars entry from seven Muslim-majority countries later this week.