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The US should select immigrants based on skills, not family ties

silhouettes of immigrants walking with luggage

Amid the debt-ceiling clash, a divided Congress and intense polarization in the country writ large, the question of immigration reform has largely fallen off the national radar. To the extent the issue surfaces, it mostly has to do with the crisis of unauthorized migration at the border, not with the legal immigration system.

This is unfortunate, because there are problems in our legal immigration system that bipartisan reforms could address. Specifically, the current system places far too much emphasis on potential immigrants’ family ties and far too little on their skills — as a result, America loses out in the race for talent.

As I detail in a new report for the Manhattan Institute, the U.S. grants about 1 million green cards per year, which allow permanent residency in the U.S. Only about 14 percent of these are granted through employment-based preferences, about half of which are actually given to dependents of the workers who qualify.

By contrast, about two-thirds of green cards are given out on the basis of family ties — and more than a third of family-based green cards go to those who are not spouses or minor children of citizens or permanent residents. Green cards are also available to parents, adult children and siblings.

Even the H-1B system, which gives temporary visas to high-skilled workers, works through a lottery among qualified applicants. That’s right: Access to the U.S. is determined literally at random. The same is true of the Diversity Visa lottery, which hands out about 4 percent of America’s green cards at random to folks from countries that otherwise send few immigrants, so long as they have at least a high-school degree.

This is all a shame, because we could select immigrants based on basic information that predicts how well they’d fare in America, rather than those who happen to win a lottery or have relatives here. In some cases there is a concrete job offer on the table, allowing us to see exactly what income an immigrant will earn. But as I show in my report, looking at outcomes over time for immigrants who were born around the year 1970 and came to the U.S. as adults, a handful of other traits are strongly predictive of immigrant success, most notably education level (and field of study), occupation and English proficiency.

These traits predict income, which in turn translates to higher tax revenues and less of a chance that an immigrant will use more in government benefits than he pays into the system. Higher-earning immigrants also compete for jobs and housing with the richest Americans rather than the poorest. And better-educated immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated or institutionalized, as well as more likely to raise any children in married households.

How would one incorporate such information into our immigration system? Numerous other countries achieve this using point systems: Potential immigrants are given points for valued traits and those with the most points get in. Such a system can include family ties as plus factors, but the focus should be on selecting immigrants who will perform well economically and adjust to life in a new country, and are young enough to work many years before retiring.

That leaves, however, the question of numbers. Based on the average outcomes of the highest-skilled immigrants — those in my sample with degrees beyond a B.A., as well as those in the most elite occupations, had six-figure personal earnings on average by 2019, when they were about 50 — one could argue that such individuals are essentially a “sure bet,” and we should seek to admit as many as possible, regardless of what’s happening in other immigration categories.

This strategy comes with risks, however. For example, in polls, only a minority of Americans say they want overall immigration levels to increase. Open borders, even only for the high-skilled, would be difficult to enact politically and would risk backlash.

A more moderate and realistic strategy is to rebalance our current immigration numbers so that more individuals are admitted based on skills and fewer based on family relationships. For instance, purely family-based green cards could be restricted to spouses and minor children, the Diversity Visa Lottery could be ended entirely, and a new point system could distribute the same number of green cards with far greater emphasis on skills. Meanwhile, the H-1B system could ditch its lottery in favor of a similar point system, an auction, or simply giving visas to workers with the most generous job offers.

If America’s leaders can show the public a well-functioning immigration system that delivers immense economic benefit for each immigrant admitted, perhaps the public will become more comfortable admitting higher numbers of people through that system.

Robert VerBruggen is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Tags Diversity Immigrant Visa green cards H-1B visas Immigration

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