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Trump should talk about legal immigration

Since releasing his policy brief on immigration in mid-2015, Donald Trump has said repeatedly “build the wall” and “they all gotta go,” simplistic renditions of his border security and deportation policies. Recently, he has been shifting all over the map on illegal immigration, and this week he’s attempting to set everything straight in a Phoenix speech.

What Trump really needs to talk about is the third principle set forth in his policy brief, the one addressing legal immigration: “Any immigration plan must improve jobs, wages and security for all Americans.”

Arguably, reforming our legal immigration system is more important than resolving illegal immigration. We issue about 1 million green cards annually, consistently admitting more immigrants than any other nation.

Immigration is a troubling issue around the world. A new Ipsos poll of citizens in 22 nations finds that only 20% believe immigration has a positive impact on their countries. When there is such meager support for immigration, it cannot be said that anti-immigrant sentiment is racist, nativist or xenophobic. Brexit proves that illegal immigration is not the sole concern, since Brits are upset by immigration flowing entirely through legal channels.

Americans should consider the issue of immigration in the broadest sense.

Perhaps the two most successful immigration systems in the world are the points systems employed by Canada and Australia. After the U.S. and the U.K., these two nations have some of the most consistently high rates of net immigration, currently admitting a combined total of nearly 450,000 annually. Immigration in these two nations enjoys far more support than the 22-nation average of support.

Canada and Australia adopted point systems a half century ago in the interest of fairness, replacing prejudice in terms of race and country of origin with measures of merit — awarding points for education, fluency in English (or French, in Canada) and work experience, with the obvious design of admitting the most qualified people, those with the highest point scores.

The U.S. should do the same, largely replacing the family sponsorship approach responsible for approximately two-thirds of legal immigration into this country. Family sponsorship results in “chain immigration,” i.e. the admission of “chains” of relatives. It is essentially a self-selection system with the one immigrant selecting the next, with little attention to characteristics beyond kinship.

As such, chain immigration is fundamentally an uncontrolled admission policy. Lack of control and fear of the unknown are the drivers of much anti-immigrant feeling. Obviously, illegal immigration is the uncontrolled entry of unknowns.

So is the EU’s free movement policy. While free movement between member nations sharing a common European culture seems quite reasonable, it has been undermined by the lack of a common policy for movement into the Union from outside its external borders. Each EU nation is vulnerable to every other EU nation’s policy governing entry from non-EU countries.

Without controls, the public can think the worst of immigrants, that they refuse to assimilate, come only for welfare state benefits, steal jobs, and may be terrorists. Using a point system to control immigration not only assures that immigrants are the most qualified, but it reassures the public, reducing anti-immigrant sentiment.

Here’s what a point system accomplishes. Awarding points for English language proficiency ensures that immigrants are more capable of, and more predisposed to, assimilation. This limits nativist sentiments and reduces real burdens on the public sector such as costly special education services for non-English speaking children.

Both Canada and Australia award the most points according to age, with twenty-somethings scoring the highest. Young immigrants improve the worker-beneficiary ratio that is so critical to the financial soundness of public retirement benefit systems. Moreover, young adults are healthier by far, placing the least burden upon the national health care systems.

Awarding points for educational achievement is not only fair and meritocratic, but it ensures that immigrants are prepared for the advanced economies of the developed nations they seek to enter.

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 in absolute numbers and types of skills. This addresses the concern that citizens not lose jobs unfairly to immigrants or see wages depressed by unlimited immigration. For lower-skilled immigrants, they utilize temporary work visas and seasonal or guest worker programs to satisfy demand for lower-skilled labor in their economies.

While everyone will be listening to what Trump says about illegal immigration this week, it is our legal immigration which merits real attention. Were we to reform our legal immigration system, it would provide a framework within which to make decisions about the status of our current illegal population. The best solutions are always those consistent with long term goals.

As appeared in USA Today on Aug. 31, 2016.


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