Do We Even Need a Merit-Based Immigration System?

From labor disputes cases to labor and employment publications, for your research, you’ll find solutions on Bloomberg Law®. Protect your clients by developing strategies based on Litigation...

By Laura D. Francis

President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for a merit-based immigration system, making the argument that skilled immigrants bring a larger benefit to the U.S.

But it appears a shift is already occurring, with the U.S. attracting more skilled immigrants without any change in the law or policy.

“This sort of rhetoric” about the system being “swamped” by low-wage, low-skill workers is “an overstatement” and not “cognizant of the new underlying realities of the flow,” Michael Fix, president of the Migration Policy Institute, told Bloomberg BNA June 5.

Whereas 20 to 30 years ago, the majority of immigrants were low-skilled, now almost half of new arrivals hold at least a college degree, he said, citing recent MPI findings. The rise in education level correlates with a shift in migration—fewer immigrants are coming from Latin America and more from Asia, he said.

But a merit-based immigration system is “much more complex” than simply focusing on immigrants with higher education levels, Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, told Bloomberg BNA June 1.

Immigrants’ college attainment doesn’t appear to have much of an impact on things like poverty, labor force participation, and welfare use, said Camarota, whose organization supports lower immigration levels.

Degree Doesn’t Equal Success

“Immigrants are starting out as behind or even more behind than they were 17 years ago despite their education levels,” he said. For example, in 2000, 80 percent of new immigrants were in the labor force, Camarota said. Now it’s down to 76 percent.

And average income is “about the same as it was back in 2000 despite this dramatic decline in the number of dropouts and a dramatic growth in the number with a college education,” he said.

College graduates aren’t as competitive in the job market as they used to be, Camarota said. And “I’m not sure exactly why.”

It could be that more immigrants are obtaining their degrees at lower-quality institutions than in the past, Camarota said. Or maybe the U.S. economy is less able to absorb new college graduates, he said.

Whatever the reason, it appears that it isn’t enough just to prioritize immigrants whose skills look good on paper, he said.

Less ‘Brain Waste’ on Temporary Visas

The MPI has done research on what it calls “brain waste"—skilled immigrants who have to take on low-wage, low-skilled jobs because of factors such as limited English proficiency and inability to get foreign credentials recognized in the U.S., Fix said.

But the majority of recent immigrants with college degrees came on temporary visas, and they “are the least likely to be underemployed of all legal status categories,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

That’s because many of those temporary visas—such as H-1B visas—require that the worker have a degree, Jeanne Batalova of the MPI said June 5.

And underemployment tends to be higher among immigrants whose degrees were obtained abroad, as opposed to those who studied in the U.S., Fix said. The MPI didn’t break out data based on where degrees were obtained.

Keeping Track of Trends

If the country does shift more toward a merit-based system, there should be a “standing commission on immigration and the labor force,” Fix said. “It’s striking how these trends change over time,” and policy shouldn’t be based on a static view of immigration and its effects, he said.

Fix also recommended provisional visas to shift the system toward green cards and to make it less reliant on temporary visas.

States also should be given a larger role in helping shape immigration policy, Batalova told Bloomberg BNA. They “understand much better the realities and needs of their labor markets,” she said.

And while it’s “absolutely essential” to monitor immigration trends within the U.S., the country also needs to keep an eye on the global market and the global workforce, Batalova said. That includes keeping tabs on what other countries are doing to attract skilled immigrants.

The U.S. is “no longer the only or the primary destination,” Batalova said.

A representative for the White House didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at; Terence Hyland at; Christopher Opfer at

For More Information

Text of the MPI report is available at

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Labor & Employment on Bloomberg Law