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Britain should adopt a points system for all immigrants

It was widely observed that Brexit was driven by anti-immigrant sentiment. A new Ipsos poll confirms that about half of Brits have a negative view of immigration, while only 35 percent view it positively. Much concern has focused upon European Union citizens currently residing in the U.K (they’ll certainly be grandfathered, as will U.K. citizens living in the EU), but the real question is what kind of long-term immigration policy the U.K. should adopt.

Britain’s best option is a points-based system, along the lines of those in Canada and Australia. Both countries sought, a half-century ago, to replace a system of favoritism by race and national origin with measures of merit — including education, English fluency (or French in Canada) and work experience — with the obvious design of admitting the most qualified people.

“Remain” campaigners balked when Brexiters proposed the same during the campaign, but Britain should consider the proposal now. Canada and Australia, it is true, are bigger and less populous nations which seek to attract immigrants, but their experiences can work equally well for more densely populated nations such as Britain which seek to limit immigration without choking off supply of needed skilled labor and unskilled workers.

Points systems in these two countries have worked as intended, attracting large numbers of qualified people. Apart from the U.S. and the U.K., the two have sustained the most consistently high levels of net immigration among developed nations. Currently, they admit about one-quarter of a million annually.

Other nations have experienced spikes in net influxes, including Germany’s 1.1 million in 2015. This was not immigration — that is, people seeking opportunity — but rather asylum-seeking by refugees. A better example is Spain’s net immigration of 725,000 in 2007, powered primarily by Spain’s then-booming economy and its law granting citizenship to immigrants from the former Spanish Empire after just two years of legal residency, among other very lenient immigration policies. Since 2013, Spain has experienced net migration.

These huge spikes illustrate something else. While the EU enforces a uniform policy for internal movement, there is no uniform policy for entry from the outside its borders. Without such a common policy, every EU nation’s immigration policy is vulnerable to the discretion, whims and weaknesses of each and every other EU nation.

For its part, the U.K. has experienced markedly increased immigration since net immigration first topped 100,000 in 1998. According to the U.K. Office of National Statistics, the increase has been dramatic over the last four years, to 333,000 from less than 200,000, an obvious driver of the widely recognized anti-immigrant sentiment behind the Brexit vote. It is not surprising that this sentiment targeted the EU, since net immigration of EU citizens has skyrocketed to 184,000 in 2015 from less than 20,000 in 2004.

Not only do the Canadian and Australian successes recommend the point system, but the U.K. already employs elements of a point system introduced in its 2008 reforms for non-EU immigration, which replaced a maze of about 80 different types of visas.

Even a well-constructed points system won’t satisfy those who want more draconian limits on immigration. But using explicit criteria for admissions ensures that the immigrants contribute to society and reduces fears that uncontrolled immigration poses social, cultural, economic and security threats. Awarding points for English-language proficiency, for example, favors immigrants more predisposed to assimilate and reduces the likelihood of nativist opposition. Awarding points according to age, with twenty-somethings scoring the highest, helped both Canada and Australia improve the worker-retiree ratio so key to funding public retirement and healthcare benefits. Awarding points for educational achievement favors immigrants prepared for the technological economies of the developed nations they seek to join.

Points systems need not be inflexible. In recent years, Canada and Australia have modified their point systems from pure merit-based measures in order to match immigrant skills to labor-force needs. Both nations admit some people with job offers, waiving most points scoring (the employer effectively scores the person), as well as people without offers according to points scoring. Temporary work visas and seasonal or guest worker programs are used to satisfy demand for lower-skilled labor in their economies. Canada’s immigration operation has been called “a giant manpower agency.”  Polls suggest that Britons would be amenable to a similar system.

Brits are not alone in their negative view of immigration, with only an average of 20 percent in the 22-nation Ipsos poll thinking it has a positive impact on their own country. Citizens in 18 of the 22 nations in the Ipsos poll have even more negative views of immigration. Some people continue to believe that most immigrants find their own way to genuine opportunity and naturally fulfill labor market needs. However, this article of faith is difficult to prove where there is an absence of statistical information, as exists with migrants entering through other EU countries.

Of course, it cannot be disproved either. But a modified points system at least takes the guesswork out, and offers a way to address the urgent concerns expressed in the Brexit vote and by citizens across the globe in recent polls.

As appeared in Bloomberg on Aug. 16, 2016.


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