For more than a half-century, foreign nationals largely have been able to immigrate legally to the United States if they have immediate family members here or a company is willing to sponsor them for a job and a green card.
Now, however, interest has surged to overhaul the longtime family and employment-based legal immigration system after President Donald Trump, in his Feb. 28 address to Congress, praised the merit-based immigration systems of Australia and Canada.
“I am going to bring back millions of jobs,” Trump began the speech segment that referred to immigration. “The current, outdated system depresses wages for our poorest workers and puts great pressure on taxpayers. Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others, have a merit-based immigration system. It's a basic principle that those seeking to enter our country ought to be able to support themselves financially. Yet, in America we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon.”
Later, in one of his many morning tweets, Trump indicated he had gotten the idea about a merit-based system from Nick Adams, author of the 2016 book Green Card Warrior: My Quest for Legal Immigration in an Illegals' System.
“Nick Adams' new book, Green Card Warrior, is a must read,” Trump wrote. “The merit-based system is the way to go. Canada, Australia!”
While Trump did not provide details on how he envisages such a system, Adams' book seems less a road map for a merit-based system and more a diatribe against the current American immigration system because of undocumented immigrants.
But several federal lawmakers interested in immigration and a number of immigration attorneys who deal with visas for business executives and highly-skilled immigrants have drawn up possible scenarios for such a system.
At its most basic, a merit-based immigration system would allow any foreign national to apply for permanent residency or a green card on the basis of his or her educational, intellectual or personal skills — not whether an immediate family member or a guaranteed job awaits in the United States.
It could also put an end to the longtime practice under the current system that allows so-called “chain migration.”
That's the practice that enables U.S. citizens to claim their spouses and minor children who are foreign nationals, but also their foreign adult children, siblings and parents. Then once those relatives are in the United States and become citizens, they, too, can claim similar relatives, so on and so forth.
Tammy Fox-Isicoff, a Miami immigration attorney who specializes in business visas, said the so-called “Gang of Eight” immigration bill that passed the U.S. Senate in 2013 contained provisions for a merit-based system.
“The bill included a merit-based system for skilled workers and essential workers,” said Fox-Isicoff. “This bill also eliminated several other family-based categories like siblings of U.S. citizens.”
Fox-Isicoff said that under bill provisions, merits to be weighed for prospective immigrants included education, offer of employment, family ties, age, country of origin, civic involvement and ability to speak English.
“Many believe that the merit-based system Trump is looking at is a way to eliminate family-based immigration, which he believes brings down the United States,” said Fox-Isicoff. “The religious groups are against the reduction of family-based immigration, as they believe family unity is a core American value.”
Though the Gang of Eight bill proposed a merit-based system, it did not seek to eliminate family-based immigration. It would have provided a maximum of 250,000 merit-based visas for foreign nationals with major skills such as a doctorate degree or a master's degree, but it also would have allocated points for prospective immigrants who are the siblings or married children of a U.S. citizen.
While the Senate passed the bill, and then-President Barack Obama endorsed it, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives blocked it. One of its eight authors was Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from West Miami.
Under the current family and employment-based system, the majority of immigrants arrive as a result of family ties to American citizens.
More than 60 percent of green cards issued in the United States every year go to immigrants who have close relatives in the United States, according to official figures, whereas the reverse is true in Canada.
A chart published by USA Today after Trump's speech showed that about 63 percent of immigrants granted permanent residency in Canada are admitted for their economic skills, while only about 24 percent are admitted on the basis of family ties.
David Cohen, senior partner at the Montreal law firm of Campbell Cohen that focuses on Canadian immigration, said there has been an increase in interest in immigrating to Canada among people who live in the United States.
“There's some significant increase from the U.S.,” said Cohen in a recent telephone interview. “That having been said, the majority are not American citizens. They are individuals in the U.S. with legal status, they are not undocumented, but they're feeling uncomfortable.”
Among U.S. residents calling with questions about Canadian immigration, Cohen said, were holders of H-1B professional visas and student visas, categories that Trump reportedly wants to restrict.
Cohen then provided a summary of how the Canadian system works.
“In Canada we've divided immigration into three areas,” he said. “There's family reunification, the other branch is humanitarian, refugee or asylum process, and the third is economic immigration and that makes up more than 60 percent of all immigration to Canada.”
Cohen said Canada's merit-based immigration system is attractive to prospective immigrants from all over the world because it seeks to draw foreign nationals based on their work abilities and skills, rather than on nationality or family ties.
“It essentially makes no difference whether you're from Norway or the United Arab Emirates or the United States,” said Cohen. “Everybody is assessed in the same manner.”
Wilfredo Allen, a Miami immigration attorney, said that though it's true Canada is known for its merit-based immigration system, it also has a solid system that welcomes refugees fleeing from persecution in their homelands.
“I've had some Colombian clients whose asylum cases were denied in Miami,” said Allen, “but then got asylum in Canada.”
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