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What Is Merit-Based Immigration? What Might It Mean for Silicon Valley?

BY IN Immigration On March 3, 2017

In his first address to Congress, President Trump called for shifting the U.S. to a merit-based immigration system from the current family-based system.

The family-based system prioritizes admitting immigrants with relatives in the U.S. willing to sponsor the family member. Trump praised Canada and Australia’s merit-based systems during his address. He said the current system gives priority to unskilled workers who strain public resources and lower wages.

The U.S. currently offers employment-based immigrant visas. Many of those visas require an applicant to have a job offer in the U.S., as well as a high level of education and unique skills. However, employment-based visas are capped annually at about 140,000.  And recipients of employment-based visas make up a small fraction of the approximately one million legal immigrants admitted to the U.S. each year.

Many within Silicon Valley have long argued that limits imposed on employment-based immigration hurt the ability of companies to hire talented workers and entrepreneurs to create startups. Shifting to a merit-based immigration system designed to admit highly educated, highly skilled immigrants would greatly benefit Silicon Valley and is a good first step.  

But comprehensive reform requires much more. Immigration policy in the U.S.  needs a streamlined process for admitting workers while also strengthening American families. It needs to provide resources to law enforcement to stop violent criminals and terrorist attacks and also create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

How Does the U.S. Compare?

Young, highly educated, skilled immigrants now make up about 60% of those granted permanent residence in Canada, whereas only 24% gain admittance based on family members living in the country. The figures look similar in Australia. Nearly 60% of those granted permanent residence in Australia are young, skilled immigrants, while family ties account for about 30%.

In contrast, less than 15% of immigrants granted permanent residence in the U.S. received employment-based visas and about 60% received visas based on family sponsorship.


Point-Based Merit System?

Trump’s vision of a merit-based immigration system would likely mirror those in Canada and Australia, the two countries Trump singled out this week. Both of those countries use a point-based merit system.

A point system proposed in 2007 by then-President George W. Bush as part of an effort to overhaul U.S. immigration policy focused on education, job skills, family connections, English proficiency, and a U.S. job offer. Bush’s proposed legislation failed in the Senate. 


What Does Canada Do?

Canada’s merit-based immigration system assesses applicants based on their ability to contribute to the Canadian economy and socially integrate. Applicants with a score of 67 or higher in the following categories are eligible for permanent residence in Canada:

  • English and French: A maximum of 28 points for proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing Canada’s two official languages. Proficiency proved by language test scores.
  • Education: Awards anywhere from 5 points for a high school diploma up to 25 points—the maximum—for a PhD.
  • Work Experience: Awards a maximum of 15 points for the skill level of previous jobs and time spent in those jobs.
  • Age: Awards a maximum 12 points to applicants age 18 to 35 years. No points awarded to anyone age 18 or younger or age 47 or older.
  • Employment: Applicants receive 10 points if they have a full-time, permanent job offer from a Canadian employer.
  • Adaptability: A maximum of 10 points for family ties to Canadians, and the language abilities of the applicant’s spouse or partner.


What Does Australia Do?

In Australia, applicants must score at least 60 points and demonstrate their skills for their immigrant visa for consideration. Applicants receive points based on the following:

  • Age: Applicants must be under the age of 50. Those between the ages of 25 and 32 automatically receive a maximum of 30 points.
  • English Competency: Points awarded based on the International English Language Testing System test score.
  • Occupation: Applicants not sponsored by an employer must have an occupation on an approved list. The number of applicants is limited for each occupation.
  • Qualifications & Experience: Points are awarded based on qualifications and employment histories gained in Australia or elsewhere, education and degrees, and whether an applicant’s spouse or partner meets age, English language proficiency, and occupation requirements.


Lessons Learned

Managing immigration policy to benefit economic policy through a point system has largely worked in Canada and Australia. It also makes the immigration process more objective and transparent. However, some have asserted that Canada’s point system has contributed to labor shortages in many skilled trades, particularly in construction.

Whether political support exists in Congress for shifting to a point-based merit immigration system remains to be seen. In the meantime, contact us. We can help you find the best immigration option for you and your family in Silicon Valley.


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Sophie Alcorn

Sophie Alcorn is a Stanford-educated, New York Times-featured expert on United States Immigration Law. She founded Alcorn Immigration Law, Silicon Valley's premier immigration and nationality law firm, in 2015. Sophie and her team obtain visas and green cards for highly-motivated individuals to build the most innovative companies in Silicon Valley, having successfully handled hundreds of immigration cases for investors, established and venture-backed corporations, founders, and families. Sophie hails from Orange County, where she was chosen as Top Attorney by Orange County Metro Magazine in 2012 at the age of 28. In 2015 Sophie joined the ranks of The National Advocates Top 40 under 40, a select group of young attorneys who demonstrate superior qualifications, leadership, influence, and stature. Sophie is a public speaker on immigration law who conveys the nuances of immigration law in a clear, understandable manner. She lives in Mountain View with her family.

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