An immigration process that prioritizes educated foreigners cannot on its own increase the number of talented workers that enter a workforce. By design, such a “merit-based” system, can only ever exclude talent. Many people who would normally be considered “skilled” (a bureaucratic construct more than an economic concept), are cast out of consideration, intentionally or incidentally, by arbitrary caps, point systems, and the general clumsiness of bureaucracy.
Despite, or perhaps because of this fact, “merit-based” immigration has gained traction in the party that is traditionally more skeptical of using the visible hand of the state to perform market functions, such as deciding which humans may be gainfully employed in the United States. The RAISE Act, proposed by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) has been endorsed repeatedly by President Trump, at least conceptually, and by Steve Bannon. Various proposals of this kind are the most popular with opinion makers who are the most eager to see all immigration, legal and illegal, fall.
The Australian points system is frequently cited as a useful example of skill-driven immigration. Australia accepts refugees and permits their citizens to sponsor family members, much like the United States, but it also has a “points table”. This points table has limited usefulness even in the Australian system, and is very unimpressive and imprecise.
Since the Australian system is considered to be a potential model for an American merit-based approach, I decided to try their system out. It was very difficult to navigate, and gave me the impression of a state actively discouraging anybody from applying (also like the United States, you can actually make a living explaining the Australian immigration system to people).
The Australian Model, and its Numerous Faults
In addition to their points list, Australia also has two very long lists of specific occupations that are eligible for skilled worker visas. If your job is not on the list, then all the PhD’s in the world won’t make you a skilled worker for Australia’s purposes. They are called the Medium and Long-term Strategic Skills List or MLTSSL, and the Short-term Strategic Occupations List or STSOL (is all this sounding more like a bureaucratic notion than an economic one yet?). If you have an eligible occupation, and reach 65 points through the points table, then you may apply for the 189 visa. If you have an eligible occupation, but do not reach 65 points, then you may still qualify if you receive the endorsement of an Australian state or territory government, and enter on a 190 or 489 visa (this is much harder to do, and the 489 requires you to live in a certain area of Australia).
How does Australia determine which occupations to place on this list? According to the Australian Home Office:
The size and composition of the Migration Program is set each year through the Australian Government’s Budget process. It is informed following broad public consultations with stakeholders, including business and community groups from all states and territories. Community views, economic and labour force forecasts, international research, net overseas migration and economic and fiscal modelling are all taken into account when planning the program.
It is, in other words, a political process. Job lists that are long and frequently edited provide far too many opportunities for lobbyists representing business and labor incumbents to sculpt the boundaries of the system to ensure that it works best for them, and that it works against their rivals. Firms and unions with less political acumen are not able to influence a process that is guided by the state.
Despite all these artificial obstacles to living and working in Australia, I did manage to apply for a skilled worker visa using three pseudonyms in order to demonstrate the ridiculousness of a points system in practice.
The first character is named Clarence Scalia. Clarence is a scrappy 23 year-old diesel motor mechanic with two years’ experience. He has a high school degree, and is fluent in English. He is kind, and generous, and liked by all. These are his results:
I should emphasize that diesel motor mechanic is considered a skilled job in Australia, and is on both job lists. In other words, Australia acknowledges that it has a shortage of diesel motor mechanics, and wants more. Even though Clarence is experienced in what Australia confesses it lacks, he does not qualify on points. He is boxed out because he is too young and inexperienced, and only has a high school degree (a license is not required in his home state of New Jersey). Will excluding Clarence encourage a more experienced person to move to Australia? Why would it? Points have only the power to destroy.
To demonstrate the crassness of this system even further, I imagined a man named Antlers Jackson (because I was bored, and the opening “Dear Antlers” is amusing). Mr. Jackson is a 31 year-old bricklayer; he lays bricks, and is 31. He has been doing this for the last eight years, nearly non-stop, and is not especially good at it. By all accounts, he is a jerk, and a scoundrel, who cuts people off in traffic, and checks out too many items in grocery store express lanes. Like Clarence, he is also a native English speaker with only a high school degree. This is what the Australian Home Office thinks of him:
Success! Mr. Jackson qualifies for all three skills-related visas, and may apply. But why should anyone prioritize a brick layer over a diesel mechanic, who is eight years younger? Why not have both? This sort of thing may or may not be what Australia had in mind, but they built their system, not I.
If I have not yet persuaded you that Australia has a mediocre immigration system, then I have one more example. Adam Picone is a 31 year old librarian with ten years’ experience in librarianing, and a PhD in English. He speaks English like an angel. He is the most well-read person you have never met and can recite hundreds of lines of poetry verbatim. Australia has mixed feelings about him:
If only he had lain bricks and not books! Mr. Picone scored 85 points under the 189 visa category, with only 65 required to pass. However, the position of “librarian” is not on the MLTSSL (the test says “SOL”, which is the former name of the MLTSSL, and an amusing acronym given the context). It is on the STSOL, but that list requires an endorsement from a state government, which can be difficult to secure. It is unlikely that Adam would be admitted. We can also see that Australia does not really even rely on its own point system; you also need an occupation that is considered “strategic”. “Strategic”, given the foregoing examples, has an elusive definition.
Could a Better Merit-Driven Approach be Devised?
You may object, and say that Australia’s model is bad, but that does not mean that a working system could not be made at all. A superior plan could surely be imagined. The RAISE Act’s point system is much more finely tuned than Australia’s, and seems to have been made with common criticisms of point systems in mind. It prioritizes those with an actual job offer (Australia offers a separate stream for those with explicit offers, suggesting once more that Australia does not rely on its own points table), and gives an additional premium for being young.
However, like any points plan, it has several problems. It bizarrely rewards hyper-fluent speakers of English over those that are merely fluent, and offers no points whatsoever for those with a job offer that pays less than 150% of the median income of the state wherein they plan to reside, which could threaten the competitiveness of smaller businesses. Only the top 140,000 point-getters are allowed to enter, as if the designers were nervous that there might be too many educated people entering the country. Aside from that, the bill also places an historically low and inhumane cap on refugee admissions of 50,000, regardless of how many exist worldwide, but that does not speak directly to the merits (of lack thereof) of a merit-based approach.
A merit-system could be tweaked constantly by experts, and kept relatively independent from political pressures and the opinions of daft congressmen and lobbyists. It could aim to give more proportional rewards to foreigners with explicit job-offers, those that are young, or who have been acknowledged widely for their talent (the RAISE Act rewards Nobel Prize winners and Olympic athletes, but no other recognition).
But such a program would never perform as well as a more open border, and the labor market itself. It would necessitate a small army of wasteful and unproductive bureaucrats administering tests to foreigners that they themselves would probably fail. Employers know what human resources they need at least as well as Senators Cotton and President Trump, and can act more precisely, quickly, and flexibly to new information. It should be easier for them to recruit talent abroad; that is, who they think is talented. Migrants acting independently also have a better sense of their job prospects than the government does.
A more open border is the only strategy that will never put artificial barriers in the way of intelligent foreigners who wish to live and work in the United States.