The Merit System


(This column originally appeared in the Weekly Standard)

By: Candice Malcolm

What America can learn from Canada's ­immigration policies.

In 2012, Fareed Zakaria dedicated an episode of his CNN show GPS to exploring Canada’s skills-based immigration system, discussing why such a program accords with the modern economy. On Twitter, Zakaria proclaimed that “Canada has the most successful set of immigration policies in the world.” His praise continued in the pages of Time, where he stated America “is losing the best and brightest” to countries, like Canada, with an “immigration advantage.”

As recently as this March, Zakaria focused CNN airtime on what the United States could learn from its northern neighbor. He noted that Donald Trump applauded Canada’s immigration program in the president’s speech to Congress. “You have a really innovative reform system,” Zakaria said of Canada’s point system, which prioritizes immigration applicants based on education, work experience, and language skills.

Viewers of CNN could be forgiven, therefore, if they were confused by the network’s frenzied response to Trump’s endorsement of the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act, sponsored by Republican senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue. CNN reporter Jim Acosta placed himself at the center of this debate as the liberal ideological opponent to a merit-based system. In a bitter exchange, Acosta provided an emotional appeal for low-skill immigration while White House senior adviser Stephen Miller impatiently explained the rationale behind the reforms.

It was curious to see a CNN reporter so vehemently defend the same policies the network’s immigration expert lampooned as dysfunctional. As drafted, the RAISE Act would take the country in the Canadian direction. RAISE proposes to cut legal immigration by half over the next decade by reducing green cards for family members of U.S. citizens and allotting the remaining spaces based on skills and merit. It also seeks to end the green card lottery, known officially as the Diversity Immigrant Visa, and cap the annual intake of refugees offered permanent status at 50,000.

While the RAISE Act is not perfect, it does address a fundamental disconnect between immigration selection and economic suitability. RAISE attempts to help focus the selection criteria to produce a better immigration experience, for both migrants and Americans, by emulating a model championed by level-headed analysts: the skills-based Canadian system.

Canada’s immigration system is successful for three key reasons: It’s designed to maximize economic growth; the system is fair, selecting newcomers based upon merit; and it works to achieve social integration, which in turn promotes broader trust in the immigration system.

The first factor to consider is the economic impact of immigration. Despite a misconception popularized by activists, immigration programs are not intended to serve as a global charity. Western democracies facilitate immigration not from benevolence, to paraphrase Adam Smith, but from regard to their own interest. Welcoming young and motivated workers helps boost innovation and entrepreneurship. Newcomers start businesses, file patents, and spark economic renewal.

Immigration, when managed carefully, can work as a countervailing force to an aging population and retiring workforce. Young immigrant families help reverse the falling birth rates and help with population growth; about two-thirds of current Canadian population growth is the result of immigration.

In Canada, immigration is divided into three categories: economic immigration (63 percent), family reunification (24 percent), and refugees (13 percent), and there are stark differences in the productivity of each stream. It’s worth noting that the economic stream itself is divided into principal applicants (45 percent) and immediate family members (55 percent), making the true number of economic immigrants closer to 28 percent of the total annual intake—still more than double the comparable ratio in the United States (13 percent).

Canada selects its economic immigrants using a merit-based points system. Objective and easily measurable criteria for selection include an applicant’s education, work experience, language skills, as well as age and adaptability. The point system allows for a neutral and unbiased assessment of the elements that are empirically proven to lead to more successful outcomes.

When a migrant is selected to come to Canada, the assumption is that he or she will begin work on day one. The government has devised criteria that lead to productive, self-sufficient, and successful migrants. Research from the Canadian government finds that “highly educated immigrants are more likely to generate a net positive fiscal balance over the longer run, paying more taxes and using less government benefits than their less-skilled counterparts.”

The second factor to consider is that of fairness. A common criticism of RAISE is that it unfairly punishes those wishing to bring extended family members into the country. The National Immigration Law Center, for instance, issued a statement saying the bill would “devastate families, eliminating the traditional and long-accepted means by which family members such as grandparents, mothers, fathers and siblings are able to reunite with their families.”

To these activists, the privilege of U.S. citizenship has morphed into the right to bring extended families into the country, in a phenomenon known as chain migration. The obvious problem with an immigration program dominated by family reunification is that economic and social considerations are not weighed, and therefore many newcomers arrive without the skills or training needed to be successful in America.

There is also a moral problem. America’s current...(READ MORE)