Without Merit: Why have skills-based immigration at all?

By Mark Krikorian on May 31, 2007

National Review Online, May 31, 2007

Among the concessions that Jon Kyl supposedly extracted from Ted Kennedy in exchange for immediate, permanent amnesty for all illegal aliens was a change in the legal-immigration system that placed more emphasis on an immigrant's education and less on family relationships. The goal of such a "merit-based" system is to eliminate some of the current immigration categories for adult relatives in order to limit future chain migration of family members. At the same time, the current employment-based immigration categories would be replaced by a system along the lines of how Canada and Australia select some of their immigrants, awarding points for various attributes (education level, English ability, age, etc.)

So at least these parts of the bill are good, right?


It's true that the nepotism problem in our immigration system is serious. The Raleigh, N.C., newspaper recently illustrated the chain migration problem by talking to Mexican immigrant Pablo Baltazar. He snuck over the border 30 years ago, got amnesty as a result of the 1986 immigration law, and has brought over his nine siblings and their spouses (each of whom has his or her own relatives) and children. Through the power of demographic compound interest, the Baltazar clan is "now too numerous to count," in the reporter's words.

The problems this causes include slower assimilation due to constant infusions of unassimilated relatives from the old country, and the takeover of the immigration flow by people from a handful countries. National Review Online's own Stanley Kurtz has explored the issue in the context of Muslim family chain immigration to Europe (see here and here).

But Kurtz and others have also discovered that the Senate bill's provisions that would supposedly end family chain migration are a sham, like almost everything else in it. For the first eight-ten years or more, the measure would actually increase family immigration so as to accommodate almost everyone (maybe seven million people) on the current waiting lists for the family categories slated for eventual elimination - siblings of U.S. citizens and adult sons and daughters of citizens and legal residents. (See how much the bill would increase total immigration in this pdf chart from Numbers USA, the most active group fighting this noisome bill.)

Borjas also surmises that the changes would be gutted in short order: "Any bets on how long it would take weak-kneed legislators to back off, strip the point system of its "discriminatory" impact, and make the whole thing meaningless?" We don't need to guess because we already know; Ted Kennedy recently told a newspaper in his state that "The day it passes we're going to put in legislation to try to fix it." And he'll succeed, for he is truly Sun Tzu to the Senate GOP's Colonel Klink.

But suppose we lived in an alternate universe where Sen. Kennedy's promises actually meant something (the same universe where "temporary" really means temporary) - would the system set out in the bill be worth it then?

Well, it certainly would cost less. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has calculated that the average low-skilled immigrant household consumes nearly $20,000 more in government services that it pays in taxes. College-educated immigrants, on the other hand, pay more in taxes than they use in services.

Likewise with the other problems that attend low-skilled immigration: higher-skilled immigrants would be more likely to speak English, less likely to be involved in gangs, and less likely to cluster together in neighborhoods brimming with third-world dysfunction.

On the minus side, a large-scale flow of higher-skilled immigrants would have the same effect on Americans who compete with them as the low-skilled flow has had on less-educated Americans; a Canadian government report found recently that that country's policy of encouraging high levels of skilled immigration significantly lowered the wages of Canadian college graduates.

Likewise, a large, ongoing flow of educated immigrants designed to make life easier for corporate human-resources departments has the potential to cause an atrophying of American education. After all, business is the most important special interest in the country, and a large, reliable flow of foreign schoolteachers, nurses, engineers, et al. eliminates much of the incentive for business to pressure for education reform.

But to answer whether we should have a merit-based system, you need to clarify for yourself the purposes of having any immigration at all. Others may answer differently, but as I see it, immigration policy is not an employee-procurement system for American business, but rather a citizen-recruitment program for the American people. And while higher-skilled immigrants will be more likely to master the initial indicators of Americanization - speaking English, keeping a job, paying your bills and taxes, and in general exhibiting behavior in lines with middle-class norms - they may be less likely to develop the deeper, emotional connections that mark true Americanization. Higher-skilled immigrants are more likely to arrive here with a fully formed modern national consciousness and have both the means and the inclination to pursue transnational lives - both through the formality of dual citizenship, and also emotionally, by living in two countries simultaneously without developing a genuine attachment to either.

There isn't room here to get into it, but large-scale immigration of any kind conflicts with the goals and characteristics of a modern society, whether in economics, fiscal policy, assimilation, security, etc. The answer is not zero immigration, but zero-based budgeting in immigration - starting from zero and adding those narrow, targeted categories of people who should be admitted regardless of the problems that immigration causes. This would include the spouses and unmarried minor children of American citizens and a capped number (say 50,000) of the most desperate refugees in the world. The third part of such an immigration flow would be a very small number of the most gifted people in the world.

This could be done via a point system, though the one outlined in the Senate bill is obviously inadequate. Such a system would still share with the current arrangement a credential-based, central-planning mindset that lends itself to micromanagement and false specificity. Maybe the simplest path would be to just admit anyone who scores above 145 on an I.Q. test.

At bottom, the whole debate over a merit-based immigration policy assumes the need for immigration for its own sake - gratuitous immigration, if you will. If America had some "need" for large-scale immigration, then selecting people based on education and English-language ability would clearly be preferable to admitting people based on family connections. But before making that decision we need a debate on the desirability of mass immigration, as such. Instead, we're stuck with dishonest and ill-informed poseurs telling us bigots and yahoos to shut up and do what's right for America.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.