What ‘merit-based’ immigration means in different parts of the world

Editor’s note: The White House is seeking to create a “merit-based” immigration system rather than one based on family reunification. We turned to our global network of scholars to get their insight on how merit-based systems work in other parts of the world.


Kevin Johnson, dean and professor of public interest law and Chicana/o studies, University of California, Davis, United States

President Donald Trump has called for overhauling the current U.S. immigration laws. Currently, the laws give priority to providing visas for family members of people already in the U.S. Trump and his Republican colleagues want to replace this with a primarily “merit-based” system.

To this end, Trump endorsed the RAISE Act in February 2017. Republicans, including President Trump, continue to push certain elements of it like reducing the ability of immigrants already in the country to bring in their relatives.

The RAISE Act sought to cut annual legal immigration in half, from 1 million to 500,000. It would do so by reducing the total number of family-sponsored green cards from 226,000 to 88,000. Cuts to family-based immigration would primarily affect prospective immigrants from Mexico, China and India, the three nations that today send the most immigrants to the United States.

Under the RAISE Act, immigrants admitted based on a new points system based on “merit” would make up a majority of those who receive green cards. Visa applicants would earn points for higher paid job offers, English-language proficiency, advanced degrees, and the ability to make investments of more than US$1 million in the United States.

Reducing legal immigration will likely increase the pressures for undocumented immigration. Right now, there are already roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. A merit-based system will mean fewer families are able to be reunited with loved ones through legal immigration. It also will not address the high demand in the United States for low- and medium-skilled workers in the agricultural, construction and service industries, which currently employs many undocumented immigrants.

Alex Reilly, director of the public law and policy research unit, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide, Australia

In 2015-16, Australia accepted 189,770 permanent migrants through its skilled and family immigration streams. In addition, Australia permanently resettled just under 18,000 refugees and other humanitarian migrants. This has been the level of migration to Australia for more than 10 years, adding nearly 1 percent to the Australian population of 24 million every year. This is a considerably larger proportion than the U.S. admits through its migration programs.

Twenty years ago, more migrants came through the family stream than the employer stream. By 2015-16, however, 67.7 percent of migrants came through the skilled stream. This change is a direct result of government policy prioritizing skilled migration because of its contribution to the economy.

However, these figures are deceptive, as numbers in the skilled migration stream include partners and dependents of primary applicants. So approximately half of all skilled migrants are actually family members of skilled migrants who do not have to meet the eligibility requirements of the primary applicant.

There are two pathways for skilled migration. The first, general skilled migration, requires applicants to work in an eligible skilled occupation. Most of these skills are in professional areas such as medicine or engineering, or trades in demand in the economy such as plumbers and electricians. The list is updated regularly based on an assessment of Australia’s economic needs.