Commentary: Why the U.S. doesn’t need Canada’s immigration system

In February, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and David Perdue (R-Georgia) introduced a bill that would radically change our legal immigration system to one more closely resembling the Canadian system. President Trump’s recent announcement of his support for the bill, now called the RAISE Act, catapulted it from relative obscurity to front-page news — but no amount of support or publicity can make this bill right for America.

As background, the current U.S. immigration system is divided into family-based and employment-based immigration; both have annual quotas. Family-based immigration focuses on family ties and keeping families together. The employment side focuses on matching skilled immigrants with jobs.

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On the family side of immigration, qualifying immigrants may later sponsor their adult children, their parents or even their brothers and sisters. Some commentators deride family-based immigration as “chain migration,” though it has been the principal source of immigration to our country since 1776.

It is natural for families to migrate together when they can to maintain close family ties. Additionally, many believe a strong family unit bolstered by extended family support helps guide children as they grow to become well-balanced, productive members of society.

Yet, the RAISE Act would reduce family-based immigration by completely eliminating categories that permit sponsorship of parents or adult children. Parents would no longer be able to sponsor their children’s grandparents, even though grandparents typically do not enter the labor force and cannot be accused of taking jobs from U.S. workers.

Similarly, adult children who may have “aged out” of immigrating as a dependent with their family by turning age 21 during the family’s lengthy immigration process would no longer be eligible for future sponsorship. Sponsoring siblings would be out of the question too, though as a practical matter the category is subject to such small quotas and lengthy wait times of up to 13 years that siblings can scarcely be accused of being the problem with our immigration system.

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On the employment side, the current system generally is based on a combination of merit and the business needs of sponsoring employers. For some preference categories, an immigrant’s own significant achievements are enough to merit permanent residency.

For most categories, and for numbers that account for the majority of the employment-based annual quota, employers must test the labor market by recruiting for an open position before it can be filled on a permanent basis with a foreign national. Only after the labor market test yields no qualified U.S. worker can the employer proceed with sponsoring the foreign national. While no system is perfect, for the most part this process works to ensure that immigrants have the skills demanded in the marketplace and do not take jobs away from qualified U.S. workers who would want the jobs.

The Canadian system for immigration relies on a program that awards points for higher levels of education, such as a master’s degree or Ph.D., additional language capabilities beyond English or other merit-based achievements. A firm job offer counts for extra points but isn’t required. Once an intending immigrant has a threshold of points sufficient to gain approval, he or she may apply and be awarded permanent residency.

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While this system sounds good in theory, points-based systems encourage the accrual of points, whether those points correspond to skills that respond to real market forces or any demonstrable need for those skills in the marketplace. A system that does not attempt to match immigrants with jobs requiring their skills will not serve to protect the U.S. workforce. It will only result in a market glut of some skills and a shortage of others.

In today’s political and social climate, it is popular to look to Canada for things we might wish we had. Rolling Stone magazine has famously coveted their prime minister, Many Austinites wilting in the August heat could easily desire their late-summer climate. But their immigration system is one thing we should not aspire to.

Bressler, of Austin, is a partner at Foster LLP.

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