Americans Move Toward Points-based Selection System for Skilled Immigrants

In Canada we have been using a “points system” to select skilled immigrants for approximately four decades now. It has become the cornerstone of our immigration selection system and the basis for selecting almost half of all immigrants each year. Although it has been revised and amended from time to time, the principle remains the same: select immigrants based on their skills, work experience, education, language ability, age and other factors that are indicative of their ability to succeed in the Canadian labour market.

It is no longer a controversial notion in Canada that immigrants should be screened through a selection grid that takes into account the factors I just mentioned. In its current incarnation, it is known as the Skilled Worker Class. There are 6 factors (age, education, language ability, work experience, arranged employment and adaptability) used to assess skilled workers who must reach a pass mark of 67 in order to qualify for an immigrant visa.

Interestingly, in the United States, a recent proposal to adopt a similar type of immigrant selection grid has led to a heated political debate about the nature of their immigration system. What makes the process so intriguing from a policy and political perspective is that the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world where legislation is actually written by the legislature (in most democratic countries, especially parliamentary ones like Canada, legislation is written by the executive branch or Cabinet). So in the last several weeks, the U.S. Congress has proposed and debated a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which also happens to have the support of President Bush.

One of the main provisions of the bill is the implementation of a point system modeled very closely on our Skilled Worker Class. The proposed system includes a selection grid with a total of 100 points available (the same number available under our Skilled Worker Class). The factors under which an applicant can receive points include employment (including points for a job offer in the U.S. or experience in a high demand occupation), education, English ability, and extended family in the U.S.

The immigration bill also contains provisions to create a guest worker program and increase security measures at border points. But it is the proposed point system for skilled immigrants that has created the most debate. Many members of Congress, especially Democrats, are objecting to the point system because they feel it would close the door on the kind of low- or medium- skilled workers who have come to the U.S. in the past using their current system of family sponsorship and quotas for particular countries.

It is very interesting to see the degree to which Americans appear wedded to the notion that immigration should be an option available to anyone, regardless of their skill level or education. But in reality, their current system is heavily weighted in favour of those with family members in the country already. So the idea that an unskilled labourer anywhere in the world can obtain a Green Card (U.S. permanent residence) is largely mythology anyway.

If those American politicians eager to retain a relatively open immigration selection system took a close look at how their current legislation operates and compared it to ours, they would soon realize that the adoption of a point system would actually do much to open up immigration to people who currently have no chance of obtaining a Green Card. Indeed, the problem with a points system is not how many people it will exclude, but how many it will include in the potential pool of qualified applicants. In Canada, the current debate centers on how to fine-tune our system to ensure that we can process the tens of thousands of skilled workers who apply each year in a timely fashion.

A merit-based point system is the inevitable tradeoff that a country must make with itself if it wants to maintain a universal immigration selection system open to all equally while at the same time maintaining the ability to limit the number of applicants accessing the system. In our increasingly high-tech economy, it makes perfect sense to select those that are most skilled and suited to our labour markets rather than selecting immigrants almost solely based on the fact they have relatives already in the country.

But, for the time being at least, Congress and the American people are not buying this. The immigration bill was pulled from the Senate floor last week for lack of support and does not appear destined to become law anytime soon. President Bush has indicated he still wants to see an immigration bill passed and expects to sign one before he leaves office. But, as the world has seen in recent years, President Bush’s pronouncements often do not correspond with reality.

All of this is actually good news for Canada. The longer the U.S. maintains its antiquated system for selecting immigrants, the longer we will remain the undisputed destination of choice for many of the world’s best and brightest.