President Donald Trump has made comprehensive immigration reform in the United States one of his key legislative goals.
He’s proposed bringing the U.S. immigration system “into the 21st century” by providing a path to citizenship for some undocumented migrants and by fully securing the country’s southern border.
But is merit-based immigration the simple solution for the complex set of immigration-related issues facing the United States?
Canada’s “merit-based” system provides some lessons for the United States. Despite the relative success of the Canadian merit-based system, Canada’s experience shows there’s no magic bullet.
What does “merit-based” mean?
“Merit-based” immigration systems are based on the principle of selecting newcomers according to their skills, education, adaptability, language proficiency and overall human capital.
These metrics, proponents argue, allow immigrants to fill specific labour market needs. But they also act as predictors of how a newcomer might adapt to a new social, economic and cultural environment.
All immigration selection programs are rooted in implicit and explicit definitions of merit, whether they’re based on economic criteria, ideas of cultural compatibility or family relationships. From that standpoint, all immigration programs are “merit-based” systems.
Current U.S. political debates tend to pit the programs of some countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand against the U.S. system as it exists today.
As several analysts and researchers have shown, however, family ties and social links can also be considered a form of merit, and may have positive impacts on immigrants’ future contributions to their new home.
Consequently, when it comes to immigration, there is no objective definition of what “merit” really means.
But proponents see merit-based systems as yielding better integration outcomes. They also argue that they allow for better management of immigration levels, build public trust and are more responsive to labour market dynamics.
Trump says the system will help ensure economic growth, economic mobility for both native-born Americans and immigrants and will close the door to unwanted immigrants.
Canada’s “merit-based” system
Canada implemented a points system in 1967 in order to move away from origin-based selection of immigrants. Fifty years later, in 2017, Canada admitted 296,346 permanent legal immigrants. About 52 per cent of them entered through different categories of the “economic” class of the immigration program, Canada’s own version of a “merit-based” immigration system.
Under this system, economic immigration candidates are evaluated and ranked using a Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS). It’s a 100-point selection grid that considers factors such as age, education, work specialization, work experience in Canada and abroad as well as arranged employment in Canada.
Would-be immigrants to Canada are also evaluated for adaptability, measured by elements such as past experiences in Canada, but also by the presence of relatives in the country and their spouses’ language proficiency.
So even when measuring for “merit,” the Canadian immigration system does include a recognition of the importance of family ties and social networks.
What’s more, not all of the 159,125 individuals who entered Canada through the economic class in 2017 were selected using the economic criteria.
Between 2006 and 2015, only 41 to 49 per cent of these individuals were selected directly based on their potential for contributing to the Canadian economy. The rest of the economic class is comprised of close family members of the main applicant, like spouses and children.
Nonetheless, Canada’s experience overall with its immigration program has been positive. Among other benefits, it’s been credited with building the Canadian public’s support for relatively high immigration levels.
But merit-based immigration programs demand investment into the system, and they may have unintended consequences. Canada’s merit-based program provides three important lessons for U.S. policymakers and citizens:
Lesson 1: “Merit-based” is only the beginning
A central argument by proponents of merit-based immigration is that it will lead to better immigrant integration outcomes.
While that’s largely true, a constellation of social and state actions also affect how immigrants fare in their newly adopted homes.
Two are especially important: Immigrant integration services and efforts to find jobs for immigrants.
Canada funds immigrant integration programs that range from language training to information on jobs, bridging programs to jobs and job training. While Canada offers specific social programs for refugees, several services are also available to all classes of permanent immigrants.
Indeed, Canada plans to spend just over $1 billion on immigrant integration services in 2018.
Experience and research have shown these programs are critical to helping merit-based immigrants succeed economically and socially. They also increase immigrants’ overall sense of belonging to their new society and encourage social participation.
But integration services are not enough: Canada’s experience shows that while immigrants selected based on their economic criteria fare better in the labour market than others, many of them still endure economic difficulties.
Underemployment, trouble entering the labour market and the need to go back to school, despite having university degrees, are all too common experiences for Canadian immigrants even if they meet the “merit-based” criteria.
Skills-based immigration programs can easily run amok if the labour market can’t accommodate foreign education and skills credentials. As a consequence, both Canada’s federal and provincial governments have had to invest in educating employers — and are still working to create and enforce standards for foreign skills recognition.
Canada’s experience proves that a merit-based system demands much more than simply choosing “the right” immigrants. Governments must invest in supporting them once they’ve been admitted.
Lesson 2: Immigrants & labour market needs
Matching the demands of the labour market to new immigrants is a challenge. That’s due in part to the difference between the speed at which labour markets evolve and how quickly an immigration system can operate to bring job-ready candidates to any given country and employer.
The challenge is compounded by popular and political ideas about who is an “ideal” economic immigrant — for example, a doctor or an engineer — and the actual labour needs of the country.
In the last 30 years, those types of disconnects have been a constant test in Canada but also in other countries.
In the early 1990s, the Canadian government’s preferred solution was to select immigrants based on predictions about their capacity to adapt to a changing labour market. To do so, they used human capital as the main merit criterion. That had several unintended effects, including the underemployment of many immigrants and labour shortages in several technical sectors.
Since then, the Canadian government has made a move towards a more demand-based model, and provides provinces and territories as well as employers with a bigger say in the selection system.
More recently, the system was again amended to reintroduce human capital factors because the immigrants selected by the demand-driven model were not considered skilled enough.
Canada’s experience is one of a tug of war between planning for long-term labour needs and short-term labour supply.
Despite these adjustments, current Canadian programs still struggle to address the needs of labour markets that are increasingly divided between the need for high-skilled versus low-skilled workers, like those in short supply in the service sector.
Consequently, Canada relies increasingly on temporary immigration to meet market demands. In the last 10 years, the number of so-called temporary foreign workers has grown tremendously, as have concerns about worker abuses and overall precarity.
And despite reforms aimed at providing temporary workers a path to permanent residency, the need for those low-skilled labourers runs counter to the long-term social and economic objective of Canada’s merit-based system.
What is “best” for the economy, and what types of immigrants are most needed, often eschews simple answers.
Lesson 3: The need for bureaucrats
Trust in the bureaucracy is critical to a successful merit-based system. Any immigrant-selection system relies on a comprehensive, technical method of assessing would-be newcomers, the gathering of information on the labour market and on global migration trends, as well as the monitoring and evaluation of programs.
On the ground, considerable work is required to assess individual applications based on merit criteria. While technology makes these tasks easier than before, well-trained public servants and well-funded public infrastructure are needed.
In Canada and elsewhere, government workers use research, field expertise and discretion to assess applicants. The need for accurate data along with the complexity of these programs often make elected officials dependent on the expertise and advice of public servants.
Bureaucrats are uniquely positioned to see the negative consequences of selection programs, and to propose innovative solutions based on their hands-on experience.
What’s more, experiments that have involved employers in immigrant selection programs remain inconclusive. While they remain important partners, bureaucrats still have the advantage over employers in assessing immigrants.
The move to merit-based systems often politicize not only overall immigration levels, but also the very definition of “merit.”
The cacophony of partisan advice and political opinion on these often highly technical assessments of immigrants means it’s crucial to have reliable data on immigration and unbiased analysis. The trust of Canadian elected officials in the country’s immigration bureaucracy is one of the secret ingredients of its success.
Hardly a ‘magic bullet’
A merit-based immigration system might address some of America’s immigration challenges.
But it could also have negative consequences, especially as long as state-funded integration services remain comparatively limited and not accessible to all immigrants in the U.S..
The U.S. government will also need work to ensure that the immigrants it selects will respond to the actual labour market needs of its diverse economy. The distrust the Trump administration clearly harbours towards the American federal bureaucracy might also create considerable challenges to the design and implementation of a merit-based system.
Canada’s experience shows that selecting immigrants based on economic merit is not a silver bullet. Finding the “right” immigrants is the only one step in a large group of government actions that support immigrants and the country overall.
By Mireille Paquet, Concordia University